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Swan

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Swan

1972 – Saigon, Vietnam.

A litany of heavy curse words in a heavier Texas accent accompanied the sound of a beer bottle shatter as it met the dirt floor off to her right somewhere, but she couldn’t even bring herself to turn her head and even feign sympathy. She just didn’t have it in her right now. Even though, somewhere in the back of her battered mind, she found herself slightly concerned for the man’s soon to be bloody hand - for some reason, at the stage of inebriation that the Marine was currently at, people always panicked and tried to pick up the carnage of their lost beer, shards of glass and all, she felt no remorse over the fact that she stayed on the bar stool. She had dived straight into too many things throughout her life and career, only to get burned in the end.

A shining example of just such an event being her current situation.

Here she was, sitting on a barstool in a makeshift bar on the edge of Saigon. In the middle of a bloody, grossly uneven war, surrounded by drunk and armed American Marines, wearing filthy thread worn desert khakis with an equally as filthy Red Cross patch on the sleeve of her desert khaki button-up. A quick internal run-down of her current physical state only highlighted dehydration (her own fault, really), sunburn (again, her own fault), exhaustion (not her fault). And, thanks to a lice infestation at the base she was stationed at, she was currently sporting a dreadfully unattractive and uncomfortable buzzcut. At 38, almost 39, years old.

All because she’d jumped at the chance to prove her allegiance to her newly adopted country.

Dawn looked up slowly from the swampy beer in her hand when the hackles on the back of her neck began to rise. Only to catch the extremely blue eye of an extremely young Marine at the other end of the corrugated metal and tin topped bar she sat at. He cast her a shy yet incredibly enchanting smile. Dawn could only grimace in return and look down again quickly, then run a calloused hand over the spiky mess she now sported atop her head. Cursing herself, not for the first time, for even coming here.

Lord knew what a boy that young, surrounded by all this alcohol, death and destruction would say or do. She was playing with fire and had been since she had unzipped the flap on the tent she’d called home for nearly 2 years now, and headed, not for the Medical tent, but for this place. Aptly named by the temporary locals, the Devil’s Dugout.

Whatever happened to her that night was going to be her own damned fault.

Well, she thought, with a slow, sure swig of her beer - hopefully, her fellow medics wrote a nice letter to her mother back in England when they found her mutilated corpse sometime in the (hopefully) near future.

She had been so caught up with her own inner dialogue, Dawn hadn’t even noticed when the same young Marine sat on the empty stool beside her. Until she felt something touch her knee and quickly whipped her hand out on reflex to slap it away, thinking it was a mosquito.

Only to realised that it was his knee.

And it was still touching hers.

Dawn looked up quickly and blinked. The Marine smiled the same smile again, as if it was the only setting, he knew. It was then it struck her, this was her moment to appraise the boy – as he had no doubt done to her already. The smile was unwaivered, but the beer bottle in his too-tight grip gave him away. He was trying to appear calm when he was anything but. It didn’t take a genius to realise that, back in the USA, he’d not even be allowed in a bar, never mind in one, drinking his own drink and sitting beside a woman who was in was in Nursing school the year he was born.

He was as green as his uniform in many ways.

The Marine stuck his free hand out suddenly - even his voice sounded young. “Leroy Gibbs.”

What was she even doing?

However, thanks to years of expensive decorum lessons, her inner turmoil was easily overridden. She reached out to meet his hand without letting another second pass between, “Dawn Mallard.”

“Like the duck,” Leroy replied in a flash, his smile growing into a grin.

Try as she may, Dawn could not keep the grimace from her face. She absolutely hated when people made that-

“They’re beautiful ducks,” Leroy’s voice cut off her inner tirade – hey, she was Scottish by birth. If there was one thing the Scottish were good at, it was internalising.

She blinked again, not use to being complimented.

Even her own mother could never ever bring herself to compliment her daughter. The closest she got was to say that Dawn was her eternal “Ugly Duckling”. And, when Dawn would complain about all the flak she received – her own mother’s especially, her mother’s reply was simple, “some ducks are just not meant to be swans.”

“I-um,” she coughed slightly and cleared her throat, “yes, I quite agree. The male of the species can be quite beautiful.”

Leroy’s smile lessened suddenly as he quickly followed up her comment with, “the girls can be just as beautiful if you give ‘em the chance, you know?”

Dawn felt the familiar burn of embarrassment spread across her cheeks as soon his words sunk in. Boy, did she fell like an absolute fool - letting the words of an absolute child affect her the way they were.

She made sure to reply quickly, lest he think she was speechless (and maybe she had been – only for a second!), “thank you for the compliment, Leroy.” Her hand rose again to brush across her head, an action done to hopefully bring her fluttering heartbeat back down to earth. “It is truly, greatly appreciated.”

“Actually,” Leroy straightened in his stool suddenly, and placed his beer on the bar top, then tapped out a quick rhythm with his fingers and nodded. Dawn couldn’t help but wonder if she’d be soon let in on whatever it was, he’d decided. “I think I’d prefer if you called me Jethro – that’s my second name.” A tight lipped, sunken cheeked face followed as his eyes lost focus for the first time and he looked away. He was obviously about to let her in on the first truly personal thing about him. One he’d seemingly rather forget. “My dad calls me Leroy.”

She waited a beat before she let herself react, somehow with a smile – the first real smile she’d smiled in a long time. And didn’t it figure that it would be directed at a boy trying to be a man when she was a woman trying to recapture the wonder she’d once felt, when she’d been his age? She set a gentle hand on his arm to set the boy at ease and spoke again. Making sure to keep the smile on her face so it showed in her voice, Dawn waited till he looked back to her before she spoke, “I am old enough to be your mum, you realise?”

“But you’re not.” The newly named Jethro challenged with a nod. His stance in the chair finally relaxing. “You’re just Dawn, aren’t you?”

A startled laugh followed, before, finally, her shoulders relaxed (albeit incrementally, she wasn’t completely daft). “Another compliment, I believe.” She pushed her glasses further up her nose with the pointer finger of the hand holding her beer and winked. “I do have to begin to wonder what your motives for this evening are.” She paused and then added, “Jethro.”

Basically, just to see what the boy’s reaction would be.

The sudden shine of excitement in the unjustly dull crystal blue eyes facing her was all the reward she needed. Jethro’s grin returned in an instant as he lifted his beer from the bar top, clinked it against hers and swallowed the foamy sludge at the bottom of it in one quick go.

 Dawn watched Jethro’s throat work to swallow the dreadful liquid and couldn’t deny the heat that began to build in the pit of her stomach and spread like wildfire throughout her battered body within the split second she allowed herself to watch. She then drew back her focus just enough to study his profile and inwardly nodded.

 The sudden rush of feelings for this boy, and that is all he really was, was something she had not felt in a very long time. Though it startled her to realise that she was about to do something she’d never ever done before (one night stands had never been her thing. They were something “good girls” just didn’t do where she was from), Dawn couldn’t help but start to rationalise it all.

He seemed harmless, and she was a big girl. She could look after herself.

He was, hopefully, legal in the eyes and laws of most of the States back home (she really had to ask him how old he was…later).

No one was going to know what they did back home.

It wasn’t like they would ever see each other again.

And, most pressingly of all, at least for her - it had been literally years!

Yes, she thought, matching his grin with one of hers, she could let her guard down just this once.

 

-*-

     

1992 – NIS Headquarters, Washington D.C.

“Doctor Mallard,” Dawn could not help but notice that the Director of NIS, the man who would hopefully become her boss if everything went well today, was obviously younger than her.

His eyes, though tight at the corners and well lined due to the stress of running a government agency, were still bright and full of the shine Dawn felt had left hers long ago.

He probably wondered why a woman her age would have even applied for such a j- “you come highly venerated.” He looked down as he straightened out his tie which gave her just enough time to recover from the surprise of the sudden compliment.

That was not something many people ever gave her, let alone during a job interview.

A compliment.

Recently, the first thing that always happened during interviews, after taking in her obvious middle-aged appearance, was to question her motives for applying. The reply they got from her was always the same as well. This was a place she wanted to work. Dawn would always touch on the sensitive age subject before they got the chance. At least if she said something, she could spin it in her favour instead of relying on the judgement of overworked HR employees.

She’d gone back to school 12 years ago to become a doctor after years and years of being a RN, she'd found she loved the Forensic Pathology side of the profession and decided to go further once initial requirements were met and become a Medical Examiner.

 Of course, most no doubt wondered, not out loud if this almost 60 year old sitting in front of them could not only keep up with the doctors half her age, but also meet the vigorous physical and mental requirements needed to do the job?

She knew the answer, of course.

They, however, constantly just assumed. All because of an age-old bias against anything a bit vintage.

It was because of that bias, she would never last long. Dawn would always be let go because of some bogus reason or another right before her probationary period was over. To them, she wasn’t an advantage. She was a liability.

Maybe though, maybe this man – her interviewer for what would be her 5th job in 2 years,  was going to be the exception to that rule, and finally let her prove what her old(er) bones could do.

He began to sit down but paused and straightened up again, appearing to remember himself and his manners just in time, and offered her the empty seat on the other side of his desk. “Please, Doctor Mallard, take a seat.”

“Thank you, Director Morrow,” she smiled, holding tight to the weathered briefcase in her hand, filled with decades of reports and reference letters (some from long dead mentors and managers), that had accompanied her throughout every phase of her professional life so far, and flattened invisible creases on her skirt with the other. “I do hope I get the chance to show you that every word of praise has been well earned.”

He picked up a newly printed copy of her resume from a neat pile of papers beside his computer and nodded approvingly. “I’m quite sure you will.” His quiet blue eyes dropped to her resume quickly before looking back across to her, with a quirk of his lip. “Your resume is both impeccable and impressive, Doctor Mallard. You most certainly seem the type of person that NIS nee-“

The sound of the double door behind her opening so hard and fast it actually bounced off the wall behind it, cut Director Morrow off and both shot to their feet and turn towards the offending noise.

She barely had to turn, however, before she found herself standing mere centimetres away from a ghost.

Her found herself nearly choking on her own saliva as the ghost began to speak,  “Tom, I need to talk to you about this Ryder case before it all blows up i-“ needless to say, every word seemed to die on the ghost’s tongue almost as soon as he realised that 1, “Tom” currently had company and 2, he knew the company. Quite well.

Dawn felt the same familiar burn of embarrassment spread across her cheeks as the night they’d met all those years ago as she nodded at the ghost, affirming his own revelation. “Hello, Jethro.”

God, he had aged beautifully.

It really was no fair.

“Dawn.” Jethro’s Adam’s apple bobbed several times, as his eyes looked her over – from head to toe. “What are you doing here?”

Director Morrow cut in then, making sure to address her in a wholly professional way, unlike Jethro. He even stressed her title!  “Doctor Mallard is here because she applied for the vacant Medical Examiner position we currently have available, Agent Gibbs.” He then looked between them and stated the obvious.

“I’m assuming you know each other.”

It was Dawn who spoke. Her voice practiced and even, “we met 20 years ago, Director. I was a nurse with the Red Cross, stationed in Saigon.” She finally managed to break her attention away from Jethro and focus on the director. Her voice never wavered once, even though her knees felt a bit like doing just that right about then.  “Your Agent Gibbs was just newly in the Marines at the time.”

Morrow nodded slowly, allowing himself to take in and hypothetically "chew over" the information he had just learned.

 Dawn could tell she was going to like working for him, if she got the job, of course.

 He was obviously the calm in the middle of the storm she was so eagerly willing to step into.

“You became a doctor,” Jethro finally spoke, his voice holding a tinge of awe with a large helping of pride around the edges.

It didn’t take Dawn long to realise why. Once his alcohol rattled mind had noticed the red cross on her sleeve, after they left the bar that night, he’d called her Doctor – even after she’d told him she was just a nurse. Don’t worry, he had said, she would be eventually. “As you assumed.”

His smile was immediate yet again, holding every bit of self assuredness he had had as a teenager – possibly even more.  “Told ya, didn’t I?”

And my god, Dawn thought, it was just as enchanting as it had been 20 years ago.

Men really did just get better as they got aged while women just got older, didn’t they?

“That you did, Jethro, thank you.” Dawn returned the smile, albeit with not as much enthusiasm and absolutely none of the assuredness. “

He had a job.

She was still going for one.

Silence then fell over the trio for a split second before Director Morrow finally spoke up. “If you’ll excuse us, Agent Gibbs,” he cleared his throat gently but resolute, “ I’d like to continue this job interview? I don’t believe the case you’re currently concerned with will implode if we wait a bit longer to discuss it.”

Jethro, for the first time she’d ever witnessed, actually looked embarrassed as he nodded quietly and turned back toward the door. He left just as quickly as he entered, but not before throwing his attention back at Dawn for a second more. Her eyes widen slightly as he winked.

As the door clicked behind him, Dawn just stood there for a second. Wondering if she had dreamed the entire thing or not…the position opening up had been an impossibility, getting an interview an even bigger one, but almost literally running into a man she had met only once, decades ago, and hadn’t seen since…that was unheard of!

--

He was waiting for her in the lobby, at the elevator when she was finished with the interview.

Literally.

The elevator doors opened, and she stepped out, just to run directly into his chest.

Dawn looked up, startled, but recovered immediately when she realised who she had stepped into and informed him that the Director was looking for him to discuss the case Jethro had wanted to talk about when he’d interrupted.

His bright eyes flashed as his hand wrapped around the wrist of the hand carrying her briefcase. “He can wait.” He squeezed the wrist ever so gently then and asked, “do you have time to talk?”

Dawn looked to her watch, thankfully on the opposite hand, and pursed her lips. “I have another interview in Virginia at 3 o’clock.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he retorted, the bravado in his voice familiar. “You’ll get this one.”

Her reply was lightning fast and incredibly indignant. “You can’t just assume something like that, Jethro! I’m not at all what most people are looking for. If I don’t bend to every requests I receive, I will never get any-“

“You’re perfect for what you want to be.”

Her mouth fell open in pure disbelief at the Fortune Cookie type advice that had just fallen from the man’s lips. Her eyes flashed, this time with challenge as she snapped her mouth shut a half second before demanding to know what the hell that was supposed to mean?”

His answer was almost too simple. “It means you don’t want any other job; you want this one.

Her follow-up, however, was anything but.

It held all the bitterness, disappointment and rage she had yet to let show about her constant and varied interviews and all the subsequent situations and tasks she’d been forced to put up with. “You have absolutely no idea what I truly want, Jethro, and you’ll do well to never assume you do.” She pushed at his chest with her finger as the grip on her suitcase increased, along with her blood pressure. “You see, unlike you, I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t matter what I want at all in this life. It is what is it is. Good or bad. I just had to try to make whatever I’m dealt with as suitable for me as possible. And that is what I’m bloody well going to do.” She paused just long enough to inhale and let the rage build before stabbing him in the chest again with her finger. “I’m sick of your and everyone else’s bloody assumptions because they are, and have always been pure bloody rubbish.”

Yes, she wanted the job with NIS. She wanted it probably more than she’d ever wanted anything in her long and chaotic life. However, she’d learned quickly, and at an incredibly young age, to never let anyone see or know just how much she wanted something. Lest it be taken away from her before she ever really had it. Again.

Instead of replying, or even making a sound, and for the longest time, Jethro just stood in front of her. He was literally holding the elevator doors open on either side of her with his elbows, and focused intently on her face. No doubt, she thought, trying to intimidate her in some way.

Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t going to work.

Dawn had years of life experiences, and stressful and terrifying situations on him. And she’d been stared down by more terrifying men many times before, and no doubt would be many times in the future.

She had yet to break.

She definitely wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of being the first person to do so.

“C’mon,” he said suddenly, letting the hand gripping her wrist pull her from the elevator completely. “I’ll buy you a coffee before your next interview.”

Dawn nodded. Unable to voice her agreement as she was forcefully pulled back through security by Jethro. He had no way of even knowing what her reaction had been. Instead, he immediately faced away from her with his first step and began his mission of exiting the building, whether she wanted to accompany him or not.

-

“I travelled around Africa and South America for years after the war,” Dawn spoke even as her attention stayed firmly on the steaming cup of coffee in front of her. “With both Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. As well as a few friends who ran their own little makeshift clinics throughout both countries.” She swallowed hard and let her attention drop to her side, where her briefcase sat and began to worry her bottom lip. “It was actually in a village near Kenya I decided to go back to school after an incident there.” She looked back up to meet his eyes. “A tribesman wouldn’t let male doctors near his daughter who was suffering from terrible Appendicitis. He also didn’t believe nurses knew what to do, believing that nurses were just grown up children.”

“I’m sorry,” Jethro apologised suddenly, obviously realising what had happened before she finished.

Dawn looked away quickly again, but managed a small smile, “thank you.”

She then looked back down at her coffee and continued. “As soon as I was done with that tour, I came back to the US – New York City at the time, and started Med school.” A pause followed as she leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest; signifying to all that knew her that she was finally allowing herself to relax in their presence. “June 24th, 1978, I applied to Med school and started September 4th that year. I graduated two very long years later, in April 1982 – the same age as one of my favourite professors.”

Jethro let a small chuckle fall from his lips, but otherwise stayed silent and let her talk.

“I started my Pathology Residency 2 months later and spent 4 rather wonderfully challenging years at Langone Tisch Hospital. Then when that was done, I decided to move some place else.” She sat forward slowly and shrugged once she felt her elbows touch the edges of the table. “I spent the 2 years of my Forensic Pathology Fellowship in San Francisco. It was nothing special, really.  It may never rain in San Francisco, as the old song said, but all the fog in its place contributed to the loss of charm and wonder for the city just as much as drought would have alone.” She leaned back quickly and finally met his eyes again, “personal opinion, of course.”

He offered her a cautious smile before asking, “how did you end up back East?”

“For my mother,” she admitted seemingly oblivious to the way his demeanor had shifted in little more than a few paragraphs of speech.

His eyebrows jumped in surprise. “She lived in England back in the day, right? Why’d she moved to the US?”

She watched his eyes as she told him the answer. “I’m afraid that’s all my doing." Her body rolled forward as her arms crossed in front of her coffee cup. "You see, she’s not as spry as she used to be and it’s just her and I. So, I decided it was best for both of us if she came to live with over here. I bought a small bungalow in Mount Vernon for her and hired help so she could get around, all through a friend, of course.” She paused and pressed a hand against her chest to emphasize her next statement. “I never even set eyes on the bungalow or the help until I came back.” Dawn then fell quiet and let the past play out in her head a bit more. “I had decided even before my mother came to the US to live, that I was going to finish exploring California before settling down to be with her for good. I had nothing holding me in one place at that point. No offers came through so I was free to do anything I wanted-“

“Why?”

Her ears perked up at the question, “pardon?”

“Why weren’t you offered a job? Don’t the people you do Fellowships with usually pick their workers with the intent of giving them jobs at the end? You obviously showed you could do whatever they threw at you.”

“I was 57 when I finished my fellowship, Jethro.” She replied, as if it were obvious.

“So?” he challenged. His eyes finally alight again, after falling quiet not long after she’d started talking. “You were still licensed and knew what you were doing.”

“Jethro,” she smiled, tapping his fisted hand across from her gently with her fingertips. “I was 57 and brand new. I had no right, in their eyes at least, to be competing for the same ME position as someone half my age, whom already had more experience under their belts.”

That seemed to help the man finally understand what she meant. His attention dropped from hers as he picked up his cup from the table, “I’m sorry.”

Dawn leaned back in her chair again with a wistful smile, “nothing you or I can do about it, but thank you, my dear.”

The couple fell silent for a while until Jethro finished off the last dredges of his coffee, swallowed hard and expertly threw the cup the few feet into the large waste bin beside them. “I stayed in the Corps,” he blinked, his eyes losing focus in much the same way they had in that bar in Vietnam. “Probably longer than I should have.”

She let him continue but leaned in again, so his story didn’t have to reach any further than between them. Dawn could tell by the way the man had closed up, both physically and verbally, that it wasn’t going to be an easy story. The least she could do was make it easier for him.

“There was a girl I knew back home, Shannon – Shannon Fielding.” His eyes and voice seemed to dance across every letter of her name like a man deeply in love. “I met her months before the bar. She was from the same hometown as me. We’d actually met waiting for the same train. I was going to Basic; she was going… to explore I guess.”

Jethro looked up at her just long enough to admit completely out of nowhere, “what you and I did that night, Dawn  – it was the first time I’d done anything like that.” He swallowed so hard the motion made the collar of his shirt fall gently against his neck. “Ever.”

His admission, though nothing but words, still felt akin to something punching her full force in the stomach. It took every bit of inner strength not to just fold in on herself and begin to shake.

“Oh Jethro,” she sighed finally, trying to hide the sudden quiver in her voice. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Right,” he snorted, in a completely self-deprecating manner, “that would have certainly impressed you, wouldn’t it?” He tried to offer a smile but failed. Hard.

“Impress me,” she parroted. “You were- you wanted to impress me?”

He nodded.

“Why?”

“Your eyes,” he didn’t even miss a beat. “They were the first kind eyes I’d seen in a long time, and I got kind of home sick.” He was silent for another beat and then, “ I think I would have slept with you that night no matter what age you were.”

Dawn’s stomach flipped almost violently as a part of the conversation they’d had in the bar came roaring back. “I was old enough to be your mother.”

Jethro nodded again as she began to shake her head vigorously, trying to deny what she figured was the truth even before she finished her question. “You were home sick, Jethro, and I was old enough to be your mother. Please tell me you didn’t sleep with me because I-“

“No!” Jethro startled, his voice rose a couple octaves as he slammed his body forward in his chair so fast the table between them rocked violently on its legs. “No. No never. I – no, you didn’t remind me whatsoever of my mother, Dawn. I would never-no.”

“Ok,” she started nodding and continued to nod for a bit longer to bring down her heartbeat and even out her breathing. “Ok. Yes-ok.”

He nodded, though eyed her with a rather unsure look, and then continued. “When I got home after that tour, I married Shannon. We bought a house, a second-hand car…everything.” He shook his head, “she had kind eyes like you - kinder. I knew I would spend my life making sure those eyes never changed.”

Suddenly, Dawn’s stomach flipped and twisted for a different reason.

Had.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Jethro.” Her heart suddenly ached for the man; probably more so than it rightly should have for a man she’d only met twice. He was obviously stronger than she’d given him credit for, and she had had no right on ever believing his life had been as easy as his smile.

She just hoped he – no. She couldn’t do that to him to. Could she?

“February of last year,” he recounted, completely out of the blue and completely void of all emotion for the first time since their very first meeting 20 years ago. “Shannon had somehow managed to witness a drug deal between a drug lord from Mexico and a politician or something. I was in Kuwait when this all happened, so I’m not exactly sure what happened, but” he paused, drew in a deep, unsteady breath and blinked.

The break in speech seemed to be the trigger his eyes needed to suddenly start shinning in the bright afternoon sun.

“The drug lord figured out who she was –“ Jethro looked up suddenly from his coffee cup and it took every muscle in Dawn’s throat to push the bile back down again when she realised just how dead his eyes looked.

It was like she’d watched the man die in front of her.

“Jethro,” she reached across to squeeze his still fisted hand, “You do not have to tell me anymore. I have no right to know any of this.”

Jethro went on, as if she hadn’t said a word, “he had Shannon and our 8-year-old daughter killed. Set up to look like a car accident. Shannon went through the windshield, Kelly died of her injuries later in hospital.”

The tears, she had tried so valiantly to hold back, finally started falling from her eyes as she squeezed his hand tighter and lowered her head.

“Oh Jethro,” she breathed hard to keep the sudden tears at bay. “My lord, I’m so sorry. I-“

“You didn’t do nothing,” he assured her a nano second after her apology. A warble disrupted both his voice and his breathing as he covered her hand with his other hand and squeezed it just as hard. “I needed to tell someone.”

Dawn looked up slowly. So slowly, in fact, her glasses slid to the tip of her nose due to the mix of tears, and sweat that currently covered her face. “You’ve never told anyone else?”

“Besides an old boss, no.”

 “Why me?”

The self-deprecating smile returned as his eyes focused on hers again. “I’ve apparently got a hell of a fucked-up tradition going with you,” he then attempted to laugh, as he pulled his other hand away from hers and wiped the moisture from his eyes with both hands. “You get quite a few of my really big “firsts”. Good or bad.”

At his admission, Dawn again drew back in the chair, and pressed her back into the hard plastic back of the chair that she literally felt the four bolts holding the chair together dig into her back. Jethro’s eye’s fluttered, unsure as to what had caused the sudden change in her posture. Dawn, however, just stared at the man. “I don’t think this will work, Jethro. Not at all.”

“What?” he squawked, ignoring the sudden attention his reaction got from the people around them. He didn’t care about any of them, all he cared about was getting her to answer one question. “Why?”

“You probably will not want me to work anywhere near you,” when I’m finished speaking, she added in her head.

Dawn made sure to reposition her focus then, just long enough to watch her hands as they locked together in her lap and then lowered her chin to her chest for a split second and exhaled an agonisingly slow breath before she even dared look up again.

When she did look up she nearly lost what little courage to say what she had to say all because of the intense icy blue stare she was receiving from the man on the other side of the table.

It was obvious he wanted his question answered and there was no way in hell she was going to be allowed to leave his sight without answering.

Her clasped hands began to shake to the point she literally had to squeeze them till every knuckle nearly popped just to get them to stop. It wasn't as if she'd ever figured her story would ever be easy to tell, but she never once figured her body would betray her like it was doing. She’d been through so much in her life, several situations much more dire than just sitting in a chair across from another person trying to tell a story, and even in those situations her body hadn’t reacted nearly as bad as she was the moment.

It’s now or never, Mallard! - she chastised herself, do get on with it.

“Right, well,” she exhaled on a breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding and held tight to his gaze.  “I was almost 39 when we slept together, Jethro.”

The man rolled his eyes quickly but resettled his attention on her just as quick. The return of the stare told her that he had expected far more than that and wasn’t going to let up until he found out just what exactly she was hiding. “So what?”

“I was your first,” her breathing suddenly spiked, but she pushed through; trying desperately to avoid hyperventilating, like she’d done so many times before, just thinking about the situation she was now trying to vocalise, and set her eyes directly on him. Dawn then swore to herself she would not remove them again until she was finished. “But you also were a first for me.”

He waited a beat and then reported, in a deceptively calm, low voice, as if he were catching her in her own trap.  “I was clean, Dawn.”

She nodded once and then clenched her lips so tight every muscle in her face seemed to protest and shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Jethro,” she addressed him with a steady, but incredibly reduced voice - thanks to the turning of her gut and burning in her throat. “You were the first and only person to ever get me pregnant.”

A heavy beat of silence passed over them before Dawn literally watched as a veil of red fell in front of the younger man’s eyes. When he spoke next, Dawn, despite her best efforts, flinched like she’d been physically hit.  “You’re lying.”

She countered quickly, despite her reaction. “I can quite assuredly say that I am doing no such thing.” She paused long enough to take a breath – something that was getting more uncomfortable to do as time wore on, and then continued, “I found out 11 weeks later, long after your group had left and I had no way of contacting you.”

She thought that she had heard and felt the worst from the man in front of her.

Until he spoke again, and she realised just how wrong she’d been.

“You did it deliberately, didn’t you? You got pregnant deliberately.”

Against her better judgement, Dawn did tried to defend herself from his wrath. “Jethro, no, I-“

“Shut up!” he ordered, cutting her off before she started. The man in front of her was no longer a mild mannered NCIS agent but an authoritative Marine, much like the sort Dawn had run into so many times in her past. She hated knowing that she was the reason for the switch. “You fucking used an 18-year-old kid in the vilest way possible and you knew it!”

The unfounded and despicable accusation seemed to be all the ignition she needed to finally fight back. “How dare you?! You have absolutely no right to accuse me of something so inhuman and grotesque!” she unclenched her hands and slammed a fist down on the table. “it is time for you to take your own advice and shut up!”

“What?!” The fury in his eyes began showing up as red on his face and neck as he too slammed a fist down on the table. So hard, however, her half full, completely forgotten cup toppled over.

Neither of them cared.

Jethro shot up from his chair and pointed an accusatory finger in her direction. “I will not fucking shut up!” She found that he at least had the decency to keep his voice low. Lest they draw any more attention to themselves. “How could you have even thought about doing such a disgusting thing?! I was a kid, Dawn, and I trusted you and you –“ his next words were spit from his mouth like venom as his whole face finally gave into the madness he felt and morphed into a mask of pure, unadulterated rage. “you’re a horrible excuse for a-“

She shook her head again, refusing to lower herself to his level and just began her story. Making sure she didn’t once blink throughout the entire thing. He wanted to make her feel uneasy? Well, she was quite skilled at doing just the same. “My head nurse found out I was pregnant not long after I did, and immediately informed me we’d never be able to leave the country with me pregnant, forget with a baby." She paused to exhale. "She reasoned, quite soundly, that the Viet Kong would kill us, in many varied and brutal ways for what they would probably believe was the unforgiveable sin of taking one of their own from them.” Her knuckles began to protest as her fist tightened once again.

Dawn realised just then, with a sick sort of satisfaction, that the rage and anger she felt towards the man at the moment was the only thing that was going to get her through the story without complication. She needed to hold on to it.

Easy - she thought passingly - I've never wanted to punch another person as hard as I want to right now.

“She spent the next 3 months of my pregnancy doing her best to force me to take any kind of drug or chemical cocktail that she knew of, that would induce an abortion.” Dawn paused just then to laugh humourless at the memory as it began to literally take over her senses. “It got to the point - right before we were evacuated, that she literally paid two old women from the nearest village to hold my mouth open while she poured whatever version of the abortion concoction she had created that day down my throat.” She let her eyes flutter again but didn’t dare close them.

 “I knew I was putting my own life in danger, and my career was probably dead. I’d honestly known that since I found out about the pregnancy. However, I'd never rightfully cared, and you know why?” Her throat started to close as soon as she asked her question, and it took a good many attempt before she could clear it enough to speak again. “I had grown to love, and want the baby more than I had ever cared about my own life, or lives of my colleagues.” She swallowed again and tried to smile, but only grimaced and drew her arms across her stomach. “Imagine that, will you? The vilest of humans, as you so addressed me, not caring about herself, but that of her child.”

Jethro’s eyes seemed to deaden then, and he actually opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off before he could utter even a sound. “You have no idea how much I wanted her, Jethro, and you never will.” Her fist relaxed slightly as the fight in the man across from her visibly left him. She carried on as he rolled his shoulders inwards and put his head in his hands. ”I’d never wanted a child in my life before that moment. Not once. And yet, there I was; ready to do anything I could, to make sure she had even a glimpse at a fighting chance.” Her chin met her chest finally, seemingly unable to hold her own head up any longer, as the tears finally came. “Forgive me for saying this, since you apparently believe all I did was consume without a thought for others, but I didn’t believe she deserved to die before she had ever lived –“

The uneven tile beneath their chairs creaked as Jethro seemingly collapsed boneless into his chair finally, his face still firmly planted in his hands. He shook his head a few times in quick succession and dropped his hands away from his face, but refused to meet her eyes again.

For some reason, Dawn decided just that second, to let the man speak before she continued. She knew, on some sick and twisted level, she needed to hear what he was going to say, good or bad. Probably because she knew, at that point, he could not make her feel any worse than she already did. “You keep saying her- was it a girl? Do you know?”

She nodded her head only once and then exhaled, buoyed by the relief of knowing that he was listening to her. Instead of just letting his anger take over and deafen him completely. “As the two women held my face that day in the tent I remember feeling around and finding a wayward scalpel that hadn’t been put away the night before.” Dawn exhaled on a rushed breath before she continued. “I stabbed my ex-superior in the femoral artery, then spit what little of the concoction she got in my mouth, in her face as hard as I could as she dropped to the ground in front of me.” The fury seemed to return with a vengeance again, but this time it wasn’t directed at the man in front of her, but at a long dead woman who dared try to control her in one of the most disturbing ways possible – by killing an innocent child. Her child.

 “I remember then taking the scalpel from her leg,” Dawn made a stabbing motion with her fist and curled her lip like she was bearing fangs to her prey, “and stabbing the first old villager in the right jugular,” she made a sweeping motion with her hand, “ and then swiped the scalpel across and got the other one in the left.” Her smile was sudden and filled with all the elation she had once felt all those years ago. Dawn then looked to the floor and mimed dropping something from her hand. “Then I dropped the scalpel,” before looking back up again. “And I ran.” Her smile dropped away almost as fast as it had appeared.

“I ran as fast and as far away as I could…for days. I’m quite certain during those countless days alone in the wild, I survived on nothing but spite and water alone because I don’t remember there being anything else.” She paused again, this time to wipe the tears that had accumulated behind her glasses away. “Until I got to Cambodia.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jethro interjected, his hands dropping to his sides almost as bonelessly as he’d dropped into the chair seconds ago as his eyes finally rose to meet hers. A sick sense of satisfaction rippled over her at the absolutely wrecked look on his face.  “Dawn, just tell me, alright? I need to know, what happened to her?”

She continued instead of replying, as if he hadn't said anything. Quite like he had done to her minutes before with his own story. “I literally fell in the arms of an off-duty nurse somewhere just over the border. She and her husband took me back to their house not far away from there and nursed me back to health as much as they could.” Dawn’s smile held none of the ill will she’d felt not seconds ago as she relayed, “Bopha Seng. I have that name tattooed on my heart and in my head.”

Jethro offered a small smile but was smart enough to stay silent.

“I realised sometime later, while still under their care, that I was probably wanted for murder back in the USA by this point and would in no way be a suitable parent. I would probably never get to see her grow up, if I spent the rest of my life and most of hers in prison, anyway.” She paused for a second, making sure he was still paying attention since this was the part that answered his question. “I made plans with Bopha through a series of broken Khmer conversations that I was going to put the baby up for adoption once it was born and disappear, as to cause Bopha any more trouble. Especially if literal government agencies started knocking on her door looking for me.”

She paused yet again and finally let her focus slip from his face and fall back into the memory completely. “The day she was born, Bopha immediately took her from the room even before I’d recovered enough to even think about asking anything about her, and gave her to a nameless America missionary friend she had introduced me to weeks before who had agreed to adopt the baby and take her back to the US, no questions asked.”

“So, missionaries adopted her!” Bless him, she thought, he sounded elated by the odd news he’d just been told. “Missionaries adopted her and she’s probably in the US somewhere. We just need to-“

“No.”

“What?”

She shook her head vehemently. “No, WE don’t need to do anything. I don’t want to do anything, Jethro.” Her eyes dimmed again as her face fell into a frown. “I can’t.”

“Why the ever-loving hell wouldn’t you want to find her? She’s my- our daughter, Dawn!”

“Simple,” she replied, watching his excitement literally begin to charge the air around. “She is also now almost 20 years old, Jethro. With her own life, family, wants, goals, and dreams. I can’t allow myself to disrupt any of that. Nor do I think my heart could handle it if we ever did meet, and she despised me.” Dawn let her hand curl into the centre of her chest for a second before she blinked away tears, she hadn’t noticed had accumulated. “Not after what all I did, as selfish as it may sound. I’ve been quite content just knowing she’s around and hopefully happy for 20 years now, and I’ll just have to continue doing so. I refuse to rock the boat.”

Jethro's chin dropped then to his chest and he stayed silent for a beat longer before he mumbled. “She won’t hate you.” It was literally the first time she’d ever heard him sound unsure about anything. Ever.

If anything, however, it made her feel better.

It showed her that the man held the same doubts and questions that she had. The same doubts and questions that only surfaced when there was more than just a modicum of concern about something or someone.

“Jethro,” she made sure to speak carefully, as she was talking to a wild animal who was ready to bolt at any minute. And maybe she was in a way. He was obviously a jump first, think later type of man, and probably always had been. “We don’t know that, nor do I ever want to take that chance, good or bad.” She let her smile reach her eyes finally as she reached out and patted his hand. “You understand that don’t you? I did what I did to make sure she got the life she hopefully has. One with a safe and wonderful family who love her almost as much as I do.”

Jethro looked up again, his eyes filled with a renewed sense of purpose. Dawn could only hope, what ever he was planning, that he wasn’t going to be disappointed.

He had suffered so much already. Had she really done the right thing by adding to his proverbial plate like she had?

 “If I ever find her, would you-“ she shook her head almost immediately and he nodded, “fair enough.”

“Thank you, Jethro, truly,” feeling finally at Peace with herself for the first time in a very long time, Dawn tempted fate yet again and leaned across the table just enough to peck him on the cheek.

She sat again quickly, and his cheeks flamed.

And wasn’t that rather adorable?

She guessed she still hadn’t figured the man out completely yet. She probably never would either.

 “I mean it, you know. Even if we never see each other again after today, just know you mean the world to me and have for 20 years.”

The man’s head began to shake slowly and with purpose, signalling to her that he had another prophecy to share with her. “You’re going to get the job here, Dawn, you just wait and see.”

She relaxed against the table as soon as his words registered and chuckled appreciatively. “I hope you never ever lose your formidable sense of optimism, Jethro. It makes you the absolutely wonderful enigma that you are.”

Jethro then threw her easy smile and fell completely silent.

Both were incredibly bleary eyed and nauseous, thanks to the precipitous highs and even sharper lows they’d experienced in such a short amount of time. However, if there was one thing they could both agree on it, it was that they were both a thousand times closer than two almost-strangers had any right to be and they’d not have it any other way.

Dawn let herself enjoy the silence for a bit before a thought struck and had her jumping into action again, “don’t you want to know how I made it back to the USA, and not as a prisoner?”

“Not particularly,” he admitted, his smile holding the same easy enchantment as before. Showing that it really was true what they said, you really couldn’t keep a good man down for long. And Jethro was one of the best. “You’re here now and that’s all that counts, ain’t it?”

She nodded once and snapped her mouth shut as she let the silence envelope her again. A hand went to her chest as soon as she realised that the near stifling weight of expectation that had sat in the same spot in her chest for nearly 20 years was now gone. She’d never named it before, because she’d never been sure what it really had been…when all along…

Suddenly, and completely out of the blue, long after Jethro had completely relaxed into the silence as well and her hand dropped back to her lap, Dawn started to giggle. Which both startled and then made Jethro start to chuckle. Which in turn made her giggle turn into a full-on laugh.

The couple went on laughing for no more than a couple minutes before Dawn sobered up and finally admitted just why she’d started to laugh in the first place. “I do hope you’re right about this job, Jethro, because I missed my 3 o’clock interview.”

2020 – NCIS Headquarters, Washington DC

Certainly, if anyone ever asked Dawn what she thought about her life, she’d be hard-pressed not to say it had been anything less than marvelous. Here she was at almost 87 years old – and goodness gracious, how had she ever gotten to be so old so quickly?! Still working almost every day in a job that she adored and one that had literally been created for her - archivist and historian for NCIS. Like everything else, Jethro had been quite right when he’d said she’d get the ME position all those years ago.

Two days after their reunion, Director Morrow called her to offer her the position.

She’d stayed in that position for nearly 26 years, working with some incredible people along the way, but the two that stood out in her mind, for various reasons were Gerald and Jimmy. Gerald left NCIS more than a decade ago, after years of service to both her and the agency, after a traumatic injury, and no one could or did ever blame him for doing so. He’d certainly proved his worth and deserved a quiet retirement, even if it had been forced.

And then, after a few false starts, she gained a rather enthusiastic, intelligent but shy young apprentice named Jimmy Palmer.

She smiled every time she even thought of the man.

She’d watched him grow from an incredibly nervous Medical student into the self assured, incredibly well versed NCIS Medical Examiner that he was now. Dawn was proud to say she knew him. Jimmy Palmer was one of her all-time favourite students. Aside from his medical skills, he was also a kind and caring individual, as well as one of the most amazingly loving fathers she’d ever met.

It was because of Jimmy, really, that her family had grown from just her mother and herself, 30 years ago to one that now included nieces, nephews, and even grandchildren! Jimmy’s daughter, Victoria had even been named after her mother! She was a Grandma! Or Grandduck, as Jimmy had started calling her when Victoria was born and now every subsequent child born into her work family called her Grandduck. It most certainly beat grandma, didn’t it? She certainly wasn’t old enough for that name just yet!

A quick wrap of knuckles against her office door had her look away from the window she been staring out of for god knew how long just in time to watch Jethro walk in. Dawn never really felt all that old when she thought back on how long she’d known Jimmy or Timothy or their ex-Agent Extraordinaires, Tony or Ziva. However, every time she looked at Jethro now, her heart seemed to both beat just that bit faster and break simultaneously as her entire sense of self morphed from the capable spry woman she thought she was, into the geriatric, feeble woman she really was.

She had met him as a boy, in a bar nearly 50 years ago, not even legal to drink alcohol in his home state. Now, that boy was considered a Senior Citizen in not only his home state, but all 49 others as well.

Time is cruelest, she’d realised long ago, when you weren’t watching.

How could a lifetime have already passed her by when she still felt like she was only just getting started?

Jethro covered the space between them quickly and leaned in to kiss her cheek, a familiar and personal greeting between the two of them. A greeting they had shared since her first day at NCIS nearly 30 years ago now.

“Jack’s coming around with an intern or something,” he warned. “She wanted to make sure you were still around when she finally made it to your office. Apparently, she’s saving you for last.”

“Imagine,” she complained with a playful smirk on her weathered face. “Leaving an old woman for last. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again! There’s absolutely nothing good about growing old and that just proves it!”

“Preaching to the converted,” Jethro chuckled before making sure to kiss her cheek again as he helped her around the desk, and to the couch in the opposite corner of her office. They wanted to make sure they were good and settled before Jack finally made it to Dawn’s office.

“You know,” she started, sounding just a slight bit more wistful that usual, “every time I get introduced to people now, they seem to get younger and younger. I’m starting to think that soon NCIS will start recruiting 2-year-old computer wizzes.”

Jethro only grinned as she continued. “You just have to look at what young Victoria can do with her tablet computer already. It’s completely mind-boggling!”

A split second later there was another knock at her office door, and both turned to look.

In the doorway stood Jack in her usual business casual look with thick framed glasses and perma-grin firmly in place. Beside her stood a younger woman around the same height as her, only in flats instead of the heeled boots Jack liked to wear. She sported a dirty blonde pixie cut, thin wireframed glasses, a black pencil skirt that reached her knees and …a light tan khaki button up.

Jethro’s eyes widened almost immediately and swivelled around to look at Dawn, and then shifted quickly back to the door, to eye the woman beside Jack in the doorway again.

“Lady and Gent,” Jack started, somehow obliviously to the reactions of her coworkers. “may I introduce my minion/ intern/co-Brain shrinker, Doctor Victoria Quill.”

Dawn spoke first, not once letting her attention deviate from the women at the door. She already knew Jethro had seen what she had as soon as the girl had stepped in the room, she could feel his eyes felt on her. They’d talk about it later.

Right now, however, she had an introduction to make.

“Good afternoon, Doctor Quill, I’m Doctor Dawn Mallard. I’m the current archivist and historian here at NCIS, but in my past life I was the Medical Examiner of this wonderful agency I’ve grown to love. I, in fact, have the honour of saying I’m the person whom both taught and suggested the wonderful Dr. Palmer, who you have no doubt already met downstairs.”

Doctor Quill nodded in affirmation and replied. “I did meet him, and he is quite wonderful!” She paused for a split second and then smirked, “I’ve actually read some of both of your work while in university.” Her smirk turned into a smile suddenly and the whole room lit up. “It’s an absolute honour to get to the chance to work with both yourself and Doctor Palmer while I’m here at NCIS.”

Dawn smiled cordially, even as her stomach started to flip. “I’m quite certain the pleasure is all mine, my dear. I love getting to watch young minds such as yours grow and flourish in a field I am fond of.”

“Thank you, Doctor Mallard.” Doctor Quill then blushed completely – from the very top of her head to the very soles of her feet and squeezed the envelope of forms she held in her grasp. “I must also thank you for calling me young, I’ll be 31 next March. So, I’m starting to feel a little old!”

“Oh,” Dawn chuckled, feeling the smile pull at the corners of her face, “you are still most certainly a child at 31, Doctor Quill! You still have decades and decades of discoveries and lives ahead of you, dear!” She then winked. “Remember, you’re not old until you’re really old, and between you and I, I hope that day never comes!”

Victoria smiled at the old woman on the couch again, and then fell silent and cast her eyes to Jethro beside Dawn. “You’re Special Agent Gibbs, right?”

Jethro nodded, his Adam’s apple bobbing almost violent in his throat as he swallowed. “Nice to meet you, Doctor Quill.” He too then tried to offer her a smile. “I’m sure Jack will teach you everything she knows, and I hope you enjoy your time with NCIS. You’ll never be without work; I can promise you that.”

“I’ve already been warned by Director Vance and Doctor Sloane about the workload, Special Agent Gibbs, but thank you for the reminder.” Her smile morphed then into an achingly familiar grin, that lit up the shadowy room with absolutely no effort at all.

“Well then!” Jack exclaimed suddenly, slapping her thighs. “We gotta get back to work now or we’ll never leave tonight. If you’ll excuse us?”

Once the younger pair departed again Dawn finally let herself look to Jethro. Her blue eyes flashed with warning, “don’t even let yourself think it, Jethro.”

Usually Jethro took her advice.Especially on the subject they were current stuck on.

But not this time.

“Dawn, c’mon, you can’t tell me you didn’t see what I saw! She was even wearing Khaki! Her name’s Victoria for god sakes!”

“Did you look?” Dawn asked suddenly, reaching for his hand, and effectively stopping the man cold.

“What?” he caught her hand midway between her lap and his, and then squeezed it gently.

“Did you look for her all those years ago?”

He shook his head once but stayed silent.

Dawn’s attention dropped to the carpet suddenly. She nodded, “good that’s good. I just-“ she looked back up not long after when she realised she couldn’t find the right words. “I never told you what I named her, did I?”

“I never asked.”

If possible, Dawn fell harder for the man beside her. She really did not deserve him.

Her smile was as quiet as her voice when she finally answered.

“Victoria. I named her Victoria after my mother. I was promised they would keep that as a second name.”

Jethro stayed silent for a couple minutes, letting the information he’d just learned sink in, before he asked, “do you want to pull her file up?”

Dawn blinked. “We can do that?”

Jethro nodded, “Tim showed me what to do.”

She spent the next almost 10 minutes fighting with herself, which was something she did a lot these days, before curiosity finally won out and she told Jethro to help her up again.

Dawn turned out to be quite impressed with how fast Jethro had managed to get on to the NCIS database of employees.

And absolutely flabbergasted when he managed to work around something called a “Firewall” to get into Victoria’s newly created, not yet public file. After all, he had been the one all those years ago who vowed rather theatrically that he didn’t need to know anything about the “god damn computers” because he was never going to use them. And now he was using the same jargon and steps to access information on them as his resident computer genius/Second in Command.

Once inside, Dawn watch him scroll to the part of the records that mentioned familial connections. Under Victoria’s there was only one name and it was listed under Mother, and that was, “Cammy Victoria Quill”.

Both her hands reached for his arm on their own accord as the world started to tilt ever so slightly. “Jethro,” she whispered, trying to remember how to breath deep enough to keep herself from hyperventilating. Something she hadn’t done in nearly 30 years now. “Jethro…”

Jethro’s free hand quickly slapped across both of hers and squeezed a bit harder than he usually dared as the same grin he sported the day they met started to take over his face. “She’s ours, Dawn.” His head twisted around to meet her eyes from where she sat in the chair beside him, and then shot back to the image and words on the screen. “That’s her, it has to be!” His hand fell away from her hands then as he jabbed the woman’s image on the screen. “She’s our granddaughter, Dawn.”

Again, she tried to speak but the only word that seemed to be able to pass her lips was, “Jethro”.

Jethro turned his attention back on her in an instant and kissed her forehead. “That’s her!” His hand found the back of her neck as he kissed her forehead yet again, this time just a bit harder. “That’s her, Dawn.”

Dawn could only stare at the screen - at her newly discovered granddaughter, and then read the name of the woman who was absolutely the child she’d given up all those years ago.

Though she knew she was excited, Dawn couldn’t honestly “feel” anything.

Right now, all she was aware of was the feeling of her heart pounding against her ribcage and the sound of static filling her head.

This wasn’t real, she tried to reason with herself, it couldn’t be.

Things like this didn’t happen to her.

But then, she started to think - she’d surely paid enough dues to afford herself this little victory, right?

Maybe they once hadn’t happened to her, but who was to say they weren’t going to start with the discovery made just moments ago?

Maybe this was why she’d been allowed to stay around so long, on earth and in this wonderful place.

She had been meant to do this.

To experience this.

This was beautiful.

Her granddaughter was beautiful.

“Jethro,” she squeezed his arm again until he looked at her, dropped her hands away from him completely, then cast the man a decidedly watery grin as she finally realised something she’d not been allowed to understand till right that moment. “I think I’m a swan.”