Tis The Season to GibbsbyTara_Neale©
She frowned at the pink stocking stuffed full of toys, fruit and chocolate. He cursed under his breath, "You know there are instructions," she chuckled.
He looked up from the pile of pink plastic that surrounded him on the floor. "Those might work well for bikes, but not for this," he said holding up two delicate looking pieces of the puzzle. "Damn thing is too fiddly."
"Want my help?" she smiled.
"Can't hurt," he shrugged.
She shook her head as she took a seat on the floor next to him, picking up the instruction and reading them.
"Suppose this isn't the way you planned to spend Christmas," he said as he pinched the end of his finger while trying to snap the pieces together. "Damn," he cursed again.
"Let me see," Debbie said putting the instructions aside.
"It's nothing," he said as he picked up two similar pieces and repeated the action, careful this time to avoid the same mistake. "So think this will make up for her not getting what she really wanted for Christmas?"
Debbie blushed at the reminder of their disastrous visit to Santa Claus at the mall.
"Gibbs, I need to talk to you about something," Debbie looked up at Abby as her daughter threw herself in her arms.
"Mommy, Mommy, Abby said we can," chimed Kelsey.
"Can what?" she asked as she saw the young woman talking in whispers with her boss.
The NCIS offices had become their other home over the past two and half weeks. Debbie had taken to writing at her laptop on a free desk, while Kelsey pestered Abby in her lab. Even with her knowledge of the Autistic Spectrum, Debbie had been surprised at how fixated the child had become on forensic procedures and how much she actually understood of them. But then again her daughter often related better to the adults in her life than to other children.
"DiNozzo, Ziva, McGee," he called out to his team as he stood up and took his gun out of his desk drawer. "Be ready in five minutes."
"Ready for what?" asked Tony.
His eyes speared her with a stare, "We're visiting Santa."
Debbie frowned down at her daughter. "Kelsey, we talked about this. We emailed your wish list to him at the North Pole already. We even gave him Agent Gibbs' address so he did not get confused and take your present to our old house. I told you we just can't go visit him this year. Not with Ultron out to get us."
The fictional villain had become the scape goat for the murder of her father. It had been a likely extension of the cover story that she and Jason had concocted long ago to explain his job and long absences. From the moment that Kelsey first saw an Avengers episode on television, the five year old had been fixated upon them. Her fixation was just another symptom of her condition, but this time it provided them with a convenient out for her father's career. Jason had become the fictional Bucky, Captain America's sidekick, ridding the world of evil.
Her daughter looked up at her with those wide green eyes that reminded her so much of the Jason that she had fallen in love with so long ago. "But Abby says that Iron Man, the Black Widow, Ant Man and Captain America will go with us to keep us safe, Mommy."
She frowned at Abby, who had suddenly decided that her new boots were more interesting than the organized chaos that was happening all around her. Debbie was about question the young woman when she felt his hand on her elbow. She knew it was his hand, or her body did. Needs that she had thought she had buried long ago instantly sparked to life at the casual contact.
She jumped as he leaned in and whispered, "The girl is right. It wouldn't be Christmas without sitting on Santa's lap."
Why did her mind have to betray her? Instantly filling with visions of her sitting upon his knee, or better yet bent over it. After all, she had been a very naughty girl lately. At least in her dreams.
Debbie could not speak as she felt her nipples pucker into diamond points within the confines of her lacy bra. In the end, she just nodded mutely and reached for her coat on the back of the chair. She asked herself for the hundredth time in the past two weeks 'what was it about this man?' But that answer was simple, in addition to the honor, courage and intelligence that had always attracted her to Jason, this man had the one thing that had been her husband's Achilles' heel, he was amazing with her child.
Half an hour later they had found themselves transported to a winter wonderland, complete with Santa's Grotto, giant Candy Canes and layers upon layers of white cotton masquerading as snow. For all the world, the three of them must have looked to everyone like the all-American family. Kelsey tugged at Gibbs' hand, chatting incessantly about fingerprint analysis and DNA testing while they waited their turn to speak with the new Santa that had just relieved the regular one.
Beneath the layers of padding, wigs and fake beard, Debbie smiled as she recognized Special Agent DiNozzo. Tony must love having dozens of snot-nosed children plying him with their long wish lists, pulling at his beard and demanding a different color present from his goody bag.
On the balcony above she noticed that Special Agent McGee was looking up from the e-reader he held. He frowned as he said something into the ear piece that looked like any other blue-tooth technology, but that she knew was networked to the other team members.
But by far the most interesting was Ziva, who was perusing the selection of nighties and underwear at the lingerie shop just in front of them. She held up a particularly stunning looking black leather corset and Debbie made a note to add one in the woman's size to her growing list of online shopping.
Over the past couple of days, Debbie had spent a great deal of time shopping online for presents for the people that had become friends as well as protectors for her and her daughter. So far, she had bought Abby a stunning new leather vest studded with metal spikes in the form of a DNA helix. For Doctor Mallard, she had found an autographed first edition copy of his favorite Hercule Poirot novel. She had contacted an old college friend, who now designed video games and acquired a prototype of his upcoming release of Timothy's favorite game.
Tony and Ziva had been more challenging. But looking at the way the beauty snuck side-ways glances at Santa, Debbie thought that perhaps the little leather number might kill two birds with one stone as the saying goes. She frowned, wondering if she wore her feelings for him on her face as much as the other woman's pining for her colleague. She certainly hoped not. What would be the point? Unlike Tony, who obviously returned Ziva's interest, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs did not know she existed, except as another duty to be fulfilled for his country.
Of course, what to get him had presented the biggest challenge. The one thing that the man wanted was not in her power to give. Shannon and Kelly was all he had ever needed, but the one thing he would never have again. Debbie turned away from them for a moment, pretending to look at something in one of the shop windows as she rubbed her coat sleeve across her face, drying the moisture that always clouded her vision when she thought about that perfect family in the small wooden frame that sat hidden among the books on a shelf. She smiled that was it. The perfect present, she thought as they reached the front of the line.
Kelsey skipped up the steps to Santa DiNozzo's throne. Debbie held her breath wondering if her brutally honest child would comment on his resemblance to their new friend, but Kelsey did not seem to notice, so enthralled as she was with her long list of Christmas wishes, the new Barbie and Ken, the pink princess bike and a half dozen lesser items. Santa had just reached for his bag of treats when the tug came once more on his beard. Debbie joined Tony in a conspiratorial wince as rubber cement warred with skin.
"There's one more thing, Santa. This is the big one."
Tony furrowed his brow, giving his most serious look as her daughter barreled into the final item. "Well, my daddy was Bucky and he helped Captain America and all the other Avengers to battle Ultron and the other super villains. But Ultron shot my daddy and he died. So I need a new one now. I'd really like one that likes me this time please. Actually, the angel in my dreams says that Captain America wants to be my new daddy. So that's what I really want for Christmas, Captain America to be my new daddy."
Tony's eyes flew up and sought out hers. She stepped forward and held out her hand as Tony took a pink wrapped package from his bag of treats. Debbie plastered that indulgent smile that she had perfected on her face.
"Kelsey, Santa doesn't really handle those kind of wishes, sweetie. He brings us toys, not new daddies."
Her heart tightened as she saw the huge tears gathering in her daughter's eyes. For the millionth time since Kelsey began to fall behind developmentally, she wished that she could give her child the one she had never had, a father's love. But this wish hit her harder than anything had, even Jason's death. It reminded her of the dozens of similar wishes that the freckle-faced little girl with the ugly red curls had made to the scruffy Santas that came each year to the annual Christmas party that Social Services hosted for the children in its care. Debbie knew the futility of that kind of wish. She had never gotten her perfect parents and now she was powerless to give her daughter her Captain America daddy.
Debbie stared at the pink plastic she held in her fingers. She choked back the same raw helplessness that she felt in the mall that day. The same raw helplessness she felt the day that she and Jason signed the agreement that would amicably define the perimeters of their fictitious marriage.
"I'm sorry about that. I know things must seem a little strange to you, Agent Gibbs," she stuttered, trying to find a way to explain without seeming the cold-hearted bitch that the past six years of single parenthood had turned her into.
He shrugged his shoulders, "I figured if it is relevant to my investigation you'll tell me, ma'am."
Debbie pondered his words. She did not see how their private family soap opera could be relevant to a terrorist investigation, but an explanation might help him to understand why her daughter clung to him like vines about a tree.
"My marriage was over, Agent Gibbs. Well, in any meaningful way. Jason and I had agreed to wait for his retirement before filling for divorce. The military is still a rather conservative place and to some people it would seem like he was abandoning his family because of our daughter's condition. It would not look good for an officer of his caliber. I hope you understand how delicate this matter could be for his reputation," she pleaded.
"Oh, I understand, ma'am. The man did not want to be seen for the true coward and asshole that he was," he replied stiffly.
Debbie furrowed her brow and pinned him with a stare, "I guess Kelsey isn't the only one that has a problem with saying whatever comes into her mind."
Laughter echoed off the walls, "No, ma'am, she isn't. Why do you think I lov," he paused and stared at the pink base of the Barbie Dream House for a long moment before looking up. "It's a trait that has gotten me into trouble more than once. So, yeah, it is something that I like very much about your little girl."
Debbie nodded and sighed. "Yeah, well, it isn't one that she got from her Mom. I've been living a lie for so long that I don't even remember what the truth is anymore, Agent Gibbs. First, it was the carefully crafted fiction about my background that the Radcliffe's insisted upon when I married their son."
She stared at the floor through the tears, unseeing anything as the rest poured out, "Truth is that I'm just some nameless orphan that was lucky enough not to get eaten up by the system. I met Jason when he was at the Academy and I was going to the University of Maryland. He and some of his friends came into the restaurant where I was working as a waitress to make ends meet. I fell hard for him. Or who I thought he was. To him, I think I was just another challenge to be conquered. Why wouldn't the poor little orphan throw herself at him like all the other girls did?"
A glass of amber colored liquid was pressed into her trembling fingers out of nowhere. Despite the fire burning in the fireplace less than five feet away or the man sitting so close that they practically touched, the man, whose voice alone was usually sufficient to ignite an unquenchable flame, she shivered as she lifted the glass. The liquid blazed a path down her throat and into the pit of her stomach. Her fingers still trembled as she reached over and sat the glass on the coffee table, but her vision seemed a bit clearer when she began again.
"Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all bad. When Jason made SEAL training and we moved to California, those ten years were great. Jason was gone on training and missions a lot of the time, but I had my painting. And of course, I learned my new role too, the perfect officer's wife. But overall, things weren't bad."
"But then we transferred here and I got pregnant with Kelsey. At first things were great. Jason was so excited about being a dad. If he was a little disappointed that we were having a girl and not the son he wanted that was understandable, but we could always have a boy next time." She looked into those clairvoyant eyes, pleading for his understanding, "I'll never forget his face when he came back from his deployment and I handed Kelsey to him. She wasn't even a month old. I have tried a thousand times to capture that smile on canvass for her, but I can never get it quite right."
Tears started to flow more quickly then, "By the time she turned three, I knew something was not right. Every time we went to the park, I would watch her play, watch the other children play, it just wasn't the same. But Jason had finally made Commander, it was his dream job and he was so caught up in that he just dismissed my concerns as an over-protective mother. He said we should just give her a little brother then I wouldn't have time to worry so much over her. But Jackie saw it too. She recommended I speak to a pediatrician she knew that specialized in autism. Within weeks, Kelsey was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome."
"Like I said Jason might have been able to get over having a girl, but everything that made him such a brilliant SEAL commander was working against him on this one. He was a perfectionist. He demanded nothing less of me, his men and especially himself. But his child was anything but perfect." She shook her head at the understanding it had taken her years of introspection to acquire, "He simply could not handle failure as a father."
She sighed and wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve, "It wasn't just Jason though. The Radcliffes too, simply could not manage Kelsey." She smile sardonically, "Lucky for all of them, that Jason's son showed up. His high school girlfriend had a baby that she never told him about. So all of them were happy. My step son finished the Academy last year, you know. Just like his father."
She looked down and fiddled with the rings on her fingers, the ones that had all been for show. "What I'm about to tell you will probably make me your top suspect. But things had changed. All the nice, civil divorce that our attorneys had negotiated was off. At Thanksgiving, Jason demanded a DNA test on Kelsey. Asked how he could even be sure she was his child? She is, but I had had enough. I was tired of making excuse to my daughter, to myself for his selfish behavior. I told him to screw himself and his money. I decided not to wait for him to retire, I was filing for divorce after the holidays. I don't think anyone knew, not even his parents, about the test or the divorce."
He gave that half smile and passed her another glass of bourbon, "Don't know about suspect, but about damned time if you ask me."
She smiled weakly and drained the glass, "I guess I should have told you all this sooner."
He shrugged and took the glass, "You should go to bed. I'll finish up here. I have an errand to run anyway."
She frowned at his anti-climatic reaction to her revelations, but nodded her head as she stood. Whether she did so too quickly or it was the two glasses of liquor in less than ten minutes, she did not know, but she found herself sprawled across his lap, clutching the front of his shirt and laughing hysterically. Laughing until the tears that would never come finally broke over the dam. Suddenly, those arms that she had longed to feel for the past couple of weeks were wrapped about her. She leaned into him, the clean, fresh smell of coffee and man enveloping her.
"Deb," he whispered as his fingers laced through her long auburn hair. His eyes searched her face, but she was not certain what he was looking for. But she knew exactly what her body was saying, take him, taste him. And for once in her life, Debbie Radcliffe listened to that impetuous voice. Her hands wrapped about his neck, drawing him closer until she finally did taste him.
But there was nothing polite or tentative about the kiss. It was wild and wanton as if something that they both kept tightly hidden had been released. And it threatened to consume them both. When they finally broke apart, she was breathless and trembling even more.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I shouldn't have," she knew that she was muttering but could not stop.
He shook his head, "You didn't. It was my fault. I'm the one that should be apologizing."
She shook her head, "Agent Gibbs, I mean Jethro," she stammered, looking for excuses.
He just shook his head and stood, holding out his hand, he helped her slowly to her feet, "You really should go to bed. Alone."
She nodded and turned towards the hall, but she stopped, holding onto the wall, "I really am sorry."
He smiled and shrugged, "I'm not. So go to bed, Debbie. Before I do something even more stupid."
She bit her lip and considered for a moment taking him up on the unspoken invitation in his eyes. But as always her courage fled her and she followed it down the hall to the room she was staying in and dreams of what might have been.
He stood in the living room and watched her retreat quickly. It was the wise thing, he knew that. But then why did his body scream for him to follow her down that hall. To take what she was unconsciously offering. He shook his head as he looked down at the half completed puzzle of the pink dollhouse. But the surprise seemed so inadequate for the little angel that had captured his heart. Another possession when what the little girl wanted most was something he could not give her. Because as inadequate as Commander Jason Radcliffe might have been as a father at least he had done the one thing that he could not...kept his wife and daughter safe.
He shook his head at the toy and looked at the clock on the wall. Not quite midnight. Their annual Christmas party was legendary in these parts, so there was no doubt that they would still be up. A quick ride across town. It might not be the daddy that Kelsey asked Santa for, but perhaps her grandparents would do.
Twenty minutes later, a jean clad Special Agent Jethro Gibbs stood in front of the massive dark wood double doors of the Radcliffe mansion. A wreath of holly and mistletoe was centered on each door. He chuckled when a butler opened the door. He asked to speak with Mister Radcliffe and flashed his badge for good measure. The man escorted him away from the crowd and into a book lined study. Waiting was not one of his favorite games, perhaps it was something else he had in common with the little girl. But he did not have long to wait. Another set of heavy double doors opened and an older man dressed in a tuxedo entered the room, followed by a young one wearing the winter uniform of a United States Naval officer.