Tis The Season to GibbsbyTara_Neale©
Debbie Radcliffe almost dropped the tray of homemade cookies and milk that she held as she stepped into the dimly lit living room. Only the hundreds of tiny multi-colored lights on the Christmas tree and the faint yellow glow from the street lamps filtering through the windows illuminated the sleeping pair, but the sight was enough to cause her heart to jump into her throat. Her nine year old daughter, Kelsey, was curled up on the lap of their new protector, Naval Criminal Investigation Service's Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
She fought back tears as she tip-toed into the room. She sat the tray of cookies and milk on the coffee table near the fireplace. She stopped once more to caress the photograph of the happy family that shown back at her from the plain wooden frame. She chuckled softly. Everyone on his team had made certain to tell her the story of Shannon and Kelly over the past three weeks. The man inspired loyalty that much she could give him. She supposed given her dark auburn hair and Kelsey's infectious personality she could understand their need to protect their leader from another heartache.
Debbie only wished that someone felt that kind of care for her, or even Kelsey. She shook her head, wiped the moisture from the corner of her eyes and reminded herself that feeling sorry for one's self never helped. She had all that really mattered this Christmas, her daughter. And they were safe. For now anyway. Thanks to Special Agent Gibbs and his team.
Turning back towards the sleeping pair, she knelt and picked up the battered book of fairy tales from where it had landed on the floor at his feet. She had just closed it softly when she felt his eyes on her. Debbie frowned as she looked up into those blue-grey eyes that gazed intently at her. "I'll take her. Put her to bed," she whispered.
He shook his head, "No, ma'am. It'll be easier if I do."
Self-reliance had become so natural over the past six years since Kelsey's condition began to manifest itself that she was tempted to argue. Demand that he hand over her daughter. But Debbie did not want to disturb the little girl, not on this night especially. So she simply nodded and followed him down the hallway to the bedroom decorated in pink. She paused in the doorway as he carried her sleeping daughter to the single bed. The girl's presence seemed to linger in every doll and toy. And given her own situation, it was a painful reminder of how short life could be.
She watched as the man bent and pulled back the covers, laying Kelsey in the bed just as he must have once done with his own daughter, Kelly. She saw him hesitate and wondered if perhaps he was caught in some time warp, if perhaps for a single moment he had forgotten that the child was not his dead Kelly. Debbie felt her lungs burn as she forgot for an instant to breath. She fought back the moisture that blurred her visions, making the whole scene take on some surreal quality. For a split second she could almost forget what brought them to this man's charge. The danger that dogged their every move. But only for a split second as the glint of gun metal shown from the holster at his back.
Jason was dead. Their marriage had long since been over in any meaningful way, all that remained was an arrangement for the sake of his Naval career and her daughter's health. His usual long absences as leader of a SEAL team were no longer punctuated with happy reunions. When he was home, Jason was emotionally absent from her and their only child.
Debbie brought her hands to her heart as she watched Agent Gibbs tuck the blanket tight about Kelsey. Why couldn't Jason have seen past the diagnosis to the loving and bright little girl that they had been blessed with? Why did that word...Asperger's...alienate the man that she thought she had loved from his own flesh and blood? And why the hell was she being tormented with the should-have-beens now? With this virtual stranger that saw her little girl not as damaged merchandise but as the gift she truly was?
She was so lost in the her painful thoughts that she did not even notice him until he was right beside her. She jumped a bit at the closeness. Six years was a long time without the comforting touch of a man. Six years without passion. She smiled as she looked over at her sleeping child, but she would do it all again. A thousand times over.
"You should get some sleep," he whispered so close that she could feel the heat of his breath on her cheek, could smell the coffee and the man.
She shook her head, "No, I need to," the list seemed endless, but she could not think of a single thing as she stared into his eyes, the soft map of lines at their corners only enhancing his handsome features. 'Fuck, why did the man have to look better than chocolate in your stocking on Christmas morning?' she thought. Grabbing onto the idea, she muttered, "I have to stuff Kelsey's stocking and..."
His calloused finger pressed against her lips to still her words. Debbie swallowed hard to keep from parting her lips and drawing that finger deep into her mouth, sucking softly on it. She felt the zing of the casual touch in the pit of her stomach...and lower.
"I'll put her bicycle and that damned Barbie Dream House together. You stuff the stocking and dress the dolls," he gave that half smile that never seemed to reach his eyes as he pushed past her.
His arm brushed against her breast in the tight confines of the doorway. Debbie held her breath and stared at the wood floor as she forced herself to ignore the lightening strikes of desire that coursed from her hard nipple to her addled brain. But she managed a weak smile, a nod and a mumbled, "Thank you."
Three weeks earlier...
"Leon, really, we'll be fine. I'm sure that the Homeland Security team are right, with Jason," Debbie stumbled over the word 'dead.' It still did not feel real. After almost twenty year and many more deployments than that, her husband was dead. Not on a battlefield or even in some training accident, but a fucking drive-by shooting in their upscale Ocean City subdivision where violence of any kind was unheard of.
The Director of Naval Criminal Investigation Service frowned at her. She had known him and his wife Jackie for over a decade since Jason had transferred to Virginia from San Diego. When she became pregnant a few months later, their friendship had burgeoned under the shared bond of motherhood. And despite the different paths that their lives had taken over the past few years, Jackie Vance remained on of the few people that she counted as a friend.
He shook his head, "No, Debbie, until we discover the Intel leak that caused this, I'm not trusting your lives to the Federal Marshalls. If Jason's security was compromised, if terrorists somehow learned of his role as leader of the team, then we can't be sure that you and Kelsey were not also targets."
She shook her head, "She's just a little girl. Who would want to harm a child?"
"It doesn't work that way to some people, Debbie. One of the reasons why Operational Security is always so high around the SEAL teams is that not only are the members in danger if their identities become known, but their whole families. I have already dispatched a team to the Radcliffe's," his smile bent up at the end, "But I doubt Michael Radcliffe will want or need our assistance. The man has a security team that is larger than the armies of some Third World countries."
Debbie laughed nervously at the mention of her famous in-laws. If the relationship between her and her husband had become strained these past few years since their daughter was diagnosed with Asperger's, the relationship with her in-laws had broken down completely. It had in some ways been the most painful part of this arrangement for the woman that had grown up in a series of foster homes and orphanages.
She had never been that close with her father-in-law, but then again not even his only son was. Though a bit stiff and formal, her mother-in-law had been the mother that she had dreamt of as a little girl. Clarisse Radcliffe though had neither the courage or the will to go against her husband and son, so both Debbie and Kelsey had been shuffled to the sidelines of their lives. A legal convenience, whose silence was bought and paid for.
Debbie looked over her shoulder to where her nine year old daughter was sleeping in the back seat of their friend's car. Everything would be fine, she assured herself, just as she had so many times over the past few years since Kelsey's development began to take a different path than other children her age. One thing that made it harder was that like most children with high functioning Autism no one would guess at first glance that her daughter had the condition.
In fact, Kelsey's was atypical in some ways. Rather than shun human contact as some children with the condition, she sought it out. Often inappropriately. How many times had Jason called her to get the child off of him? How did you explain to your special needs child that the affection she saw between her friends and their fathers was not appropriate with her own?
But in this instance, that was probably a good thing. Debbie had just grabbed Kelsey from her father's lap once more when the hail fire of bullets began to shatter the glass windows of his den. She had pushed her daughter into the hallway and covered her body with her own. She had more than a few scratches and the paramedics had picked several larger pieces of glass from her back.
As the car came to a stop, Debbie frowned. The quiet, middle-class residential neighborhood was not the seedy hotel that she had expected when the Director insisted upon placing them in protective custody. "Where are you taking us, Leon?" she asked.
The man turned in the seat next to her, his expression solemn. "Until this investigation is over, I'm placing you both in the care of my top man. His team will work with Homeland Security on the investigation, but Jethro will be tasked with personally protecting the two of you."
"Fine, but why here? This doesn't look like the most secure of locations. Hell, it isn't even gated the way our subdivision was."
He nodded, "I realize that but Jethro has protected more than one witness in his home. And I have no doubt that he will with the two of you. Besides my other concern is for Kelsey. She has been through enough. The more home like the safe house the better it will be on your daughter."
Debbie sighed. She could not argue with his logic on that. Routine was paramount in preventing any major outbursts with her sometimes volatile child. "What about her school, Leon?"
Her friend shook his head, "I'm afraid that is out of the question for the time being. I hope you understand? Our only priority is keeping the two of you safe while we close this security breech."
"But how do you even know there is one, Leon? Perhaps the shooting is unrelated to Jason's job? I don't know one of those random drive-bys or even a case of mistaken identity, maybe one of the neighbors is dealing drugs or something?" she tried to plead.
The Director gripped the steering wheel tightly. Silence hung like a stale odor in the car. "There was a phone call to the local media a few minutes after the shooting, Debra. The caller claimed responsibility, said that the infidels must leave their Holy Land or more of our warriors and their families would die."
She folded her hands on her lap, trying to stop them from trembling. She had spent half of her life as a good Navy wife. This was the eventuality that all SEAL wives were told about, but the one that none had faced. Until now. Until her and Kelsey.
"Do you think they know?" she whispered.
"I don't know. It's possible I suppose. That operation was more public than anything that we have ever done before. I was against going public for just this reason, but I was out voted."
Debbie nodded as these new facts about her husband's death filtered into her shattered mind. None of it seemed real. Jason was gone. She supposed he had been for some time, but his death was so much more final than the civil divorce that they had discussed and planned for. Another couple of years until he could have retired, until they could have put an end to the lie that had become their once loving marriage. She supposed she ought to feel something more than quiet sadness for the loss of another of this country's heroes, but she had long ago mourned the passing of the only man she had ever loved. This latest was just another acting job, pretending to be the grieving widow.
"So how long, Leon? We can't stay here forever. Kelsey and I have lives to get on with. You know how much any disturbance of her routine upsets her." She shook her head, "Perhaps the guy from Homeland Security was right. Maybe it would be better if we started over fresh, if they gave us new identities."
His shoulders slumped as he stared at his hands. His voice was barely above a whisper, "I would agree, Debbie, if I thought that were possible. But we've known Kelsey since she was baby, we've seen how her condition effects her. Do you really think that your daughter could keep a secret like that? Hell, Deb, last Christmas she told us everything that you had brought for the kids. Before you had even gotten your coats off. Lying or even softening the truth doesn't come natural to her. We can't trust your lives on her learning now."
Debbie swallowed back the bile at his frank words, but she could not argue with his assessment of the situation, especially not when Kelsey's life was in danger. "All right, Leon. You win."
He shook his head, "No, Deb, no one wins in this situation." He got out of the car and went around to open her door. She bent to open the back door, but he waved her off and picked up the sleeping Kelsey. She whispered and rubbed her daughter's back until she settled back down. As they made their way to the door, she noticed that the house was well maintained.
Leon knocked and Kelsey looked up once more. Debbie bit her lower lip and murmured quietly, hoping her daughter would drift back to sleep. She had been through so much today. The door opened and a distinguished man with greying hair and intense blue eyes stood holding a glass of amber liquid. Debbie hoped it was liquor and that he was a cordial enough host to offer her some. He studied them, his eyes lingering over her daughter with a frown. Great, their protector did not like children.
"What can I do for you, Leon?" he asked as he stepped aside to allow them to enter.
Leon nodded his head towards his sleeping package. "Where can I put her?"
"Down the hall, second door on the right," Leon frowned then turned to her. "It might be best if you put her down. In case she wakes up," he explained. Debbie nodded, thankful for a couple of moments alone with her daughter to process all that had happened.
Leon waited while Jethro led them down the hall, opening the door and letting the woman pass. He flipped the light switch on the wall and spoke something in a low voice. Then he closed the door and joined him in the living room.
"Why that room?" Leon pinned him with a stare.
"Why my house, Leon?" he said crossing to the table and pouring more liquor into his glass.
Leon rubbed his hand across his face. "Have you watched the eleven o'clock news?"
Jethro shook his head, "No, why?"
"There was a drive-by shooting tonight. A Naval Commander was killed in his home."
"And you want my team to investigate? But what does that have to do with the woman and child?"
"Debbie is his widow. She and Kelsey could have been killed as well. Should have been. Or that's what the caller to the television station said. You see Commander Jason Radcliffe was not just any Naval officer. He was Naval Special Warfare Command. Team Six."
Jethro nodded, "And the call? What else did the caller say?"
"Normal fanatical ramblings. Claiming the will of Allah had been done. That the infidel and his family got what the deserved."
"So they think that the woman and child were killed as well?"
Leon shook his head, "Not any more. Pictures of them in the back of the ambulance appeared on the same news program. So you see why I need your help?"
He nodded, "Do you have any idea how the Commander's identity was compromised?"
Leon shook his head, "No, but things have become hot since...well, since suddenly National Security took backseat to political expedience." He paced the room, "I tried to warn them about this, but no one listened. Now a SEAL Commander is dead. His family in danger. And god only knows how many others on his team are at risk."
"I take it they have all been notified."
"Of course. Too late for Jason and his family though." He turned and pinned Jethro with his gaze, "I answered your question. Now your turn. Why did you put Kelsey in Kelly's old room?"
Jethro raised his glass to his lips and drained half of it before answering. "Forgive me for trying to make things as easy as possible on the kid. I figured from the look in the woman's eyes and the fact that you were knocking on my door after midnight that something was up. I don't like it when kids get caught up in what we do. I never have. I figured waking up in a pink room, surrounded by dolls, might be as close to normal as the poor girl was going to get for a while."
Leon nodded, "All right. I appreciate that, but I want to warn you now Debbie has been Jackie's friend for almost a decade. So put your little thing for hot red heads aside, Jethro. That woman has been through hell and not just tonight." He stared down the hall before speaking again, "People don't notice it right off. It takes a while to get to know her before you realize that Kelsey is special. They call it Asperger's Syndrome, high functioning form of autism. Jackie was the first to notice. Helped Debbie find the right doctors, therapists and schools. But it has not been easy for her."
He sighed, "I don't have to tell you how hard it can be, choosing between family and country. Hell, we've both had our failings on that one. But we gave it our best shot." He shook his head, "Let's just say Jason didn't always."
"Is it something that might be relevant to our investigation?"
"If it weren't for the damned note, yeah, I'd be more than a bit interested in the convoluted family history of Commander Jason Radcliffe."
"Radcliffe?" Gibbs furrowed his brow, "Why is that name so familiar?"
"Senator Steven Radcliffe. Navy Pilot, shot down over Vietnam. One of the last prisoners of war released. Motivational speaker. United States Senator for the commonwealth of Virginia. And Jason's father."
He nodded his head, "Dealing with the big guns in more ways than one."
"Yeah, which is why I need my best man on this one. But I need you thinking straight, Jethro. I want your word now, hands off Debbie. Do you understand me?"
Jethro nodded and lifted his glass, "Perfectly clear, Director."
The men grew silent as the door opened. The beautiful red head joined them in the living room. "She's down for now." Turning towards the man, she asked, "Do you mind telling me where I'll be staying? I'm rather tired."
"No problem. Room right across the hall will be fine, ma'am," he replied.
She turned with a weak smile to her old friend, "Leon, thank you for everything."
The Director stepped forward and wrapped her in an embrace, "I'm so sorry, Debbie." He drew back and looked her in the eyes, "We might not always see eye to eye, but I trust Jethro with my life, with my family's lives. And now with yours and Kelsey's. He's a good man. The best for this job. So listen to what he says, understood?"
She nodded slowly then turn to him with another of those weak smiles, "If you will both excuse me." She retreated to the bedroom but tears were slow to come and sleep slower still.