The White Hat Sneakers

Chapter 13: Coming to Terms

He fell asleep at some point, though Sarah had kept him up and talking for a while. When he did wake again, it was because his sister was talking to someone new.

His eyes opened fully when he realized it was Tony.

“So, I’ll see you in a few minutes,” he said to her. Sarah was smiling brightly at him.

“It’s a date,” she said, winking and turning around to leave. She glanced at the bed and, upon seeing Tim awake, she smiled again. “See you tomorrow, big brother.”

He raised a hand in a wave, and she waved back, but not before telling Tony to “take care of him.” Tony just smirked in response, shutting the door after her. When he turned around again, he was all grins.

Until he saw Tim’s face.

“Date?” Tim repeated quietly.

Tony’s eyes widened, and he gave a short laugh. “Oh no,” he said, shaking his head. “Not like that! Give me some credit, Probie. I’d never date your sister, that’d be like dating my sister, if I had a sister. No, no, you’ve got it all wrong.”

“You sure?” Tim’s voice was steel.

Tony’s smile fell, until his expression was as serious as Tim’s.

“Why are you angry with me?” he asked.

“I know your track record with women,” Tim replied.

“No,” Tony said then. “Why are you really angry with me?”

Tim frowned. “What do you mean?”

“This morning. Now. Tomorrow, I’m assuming. Are you ever going to stop?”

Tim’s jaw flexed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, you do. What did I do to make you so angry? Because my meeting your sister in the cafeteria with Ducky and Abby in ten minutes for dinner is not it.” He jerked a thumb at the door as he spoke, then put it in his pocket. “So why are you so angry?”

Tim looked away.

“What did I do, McGee?”

Tim felt sick again, and he gave a headshake. “Nothing,” he admitted.

“So…?”

“I’m not angry with you,” Tim said. It was true. He was just angry.

“Sure sounds like it. I’m only trying to—“

“Tony, please. It’s not you. You’re just…. You’re rubbed me the wrong way this morning, okay?”

“What did I do?” Tony sounded genuinely curious. “I was just being me. Doing what we do, you and me. The whole, you know, back and forth.” Tony smiled suddenly. “I was just trying to—"

“Make everything normal?” Tim asked softly, still not looking at him.

Tony didn’t answer for a second, before nodding. “Yeah.”

Tim said nothing. He didn’t know what to say. But, for Tony, he knew he had to make an effort.

“Anyway,” Tony said, breaking the silence, “I really was going to get dinner. I was going to ask you what you wanted, because they’ll let me get you whatever you want. You didn’t eat the wrap, right?” When Tim looked up at that, his eyes worried, Tony threw him a crooked smile. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell her. But you should eat. How about a Sloppy Joe?”

Tim tilted his head. “I’m not five, Tony.”

“No. You’re right. Adults call it barbecue. Want some barbecue?”

Tim just gave him an arch look. Tony smiled again.

“Yeah, good point. Hospital caf isn’t about to have ribs, but they’ll have something.” He headed to the door. “I’ll be back.”

“I’ll be holding my breath until you do,” Tim sneered. Tony’s smile broadened.

“There’s the sarcastic McGee I know and love.” He grinned. “Right. Be back soon.” He grabbed the door handle, opening it, and threw a smile back at Tim. “But keep breathing, just in case. You never know what cute nurses there might be out there to distract me.”

Tim arched an eyebrow. “So long as it’s not my sister.”

Tony laughed and walked out the door, still smiling.

Tim’s own smile fell the moment he was gone, and he covered his face with his hands, feeling drained. Why had that been so hard?


Abby ended up taking the dinner up to Tim, with Sarah in tow. Ducky and Tony remained in the cafeteria, where Ducky watched Tony picking at his food.

“It will take him a long time to heal, Tony. You of all people should know that.”

Tony looked up, his expression grim. After a moment, he nodded.

“You should feel flattered, in a way,” Ducky said then. “His using you as the vent for his anger is a good thing.”

Tony just snorted. “Yeah. Great. Whoopee for me.”

“When Kate died,” Ducky began softly, “do you remember how angry you were?”

Tony’s eyes narrowed, and he looked up sharply. “This is different.”

“Of course it is. But some of the emotions are the same.”

Tony shrugged.

“What I’m asking,” Ducky pressed, “is whether you remember who you took your anger out on?”

Tony looked down at the table.

“Do you know why?” Ducky asked.

Tony shrugged again. “He was….” His brow furrowed. “He was being annoying.”

“No he wasn’t.”

Tony didn’t like to think about that night. Those days. But he didn’t forget that moment in the squad room only hours after she’d been killed, both of them soaking wet, when he was challenging McGee and McGee just asking, “please,” to get him to stop.

He shook his head. “He was an easy target,” he said, looking up at Ducky.

“Why?” Ducky asked.

“Because he was. He was easy to pick on. And because I knew…”

“What?” Ducky prompted. “You knew what?”

“That he wouldn’t leave.”

Ducky nodded. “Exactly.”

Tony looked up then, his eyes soft.

“Timothy knows,” Ducky offered softly, “that you’re not going to leave. You’re his easy target right now. Deep down, he trusts you, feels safe with you. He knows you won’t let him down, no matter what he says to you.” He gave a quiet smile. “Do you see?”

Tony frowned slightly. “But…” He gave a headshake. “He hasn’t yelled at Abby. Wouldn’t she get the same treatment?”

“Oh no,” Ducky said, his smile deepening. “There’s a big difference between how you treat your family,” he tilted his head, “and how you treat a girl.”

Tony just sighed.

“Plus,” Ducky said, chuckling softly, “it’s hard to argue with someone whose default is to hug you.”


Abby talked around Tim like he wasn’t there. He nodded and smiled whenever he was expected to; he didn’t want to set her off, whether it be in anger or in tears. Sarah stayed for most of the discussion, but when Abby started delving into the technical side of how she’d plumbed the computer virus Tim had sent her, Sarah excused herself with a yawn, promising to see Tim tomorrow.

Tim didn’t miss the worried look she threw him when she left, though she tried to hide it.

As soon as she was gone, Abby stopped talking.

It was so abrupt, Tim frowned, looking across the room at her. She was sitting in the chair next to the table, while Sarah had sat next to the bed. When she saw she had his attention, she stood up and walked across the room to his bed. Forgoing the chair, she sat down on his bed.

And just studied him.

Finally, she spoke. “You’re not okay, are you?” she asked seriously.

He blinked a few times, and tried to smile. “Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”

She just nodded, and leaned over so that she was resting her head on his shoulder, similar to the way his sister had leaned on him that afternoon. She rested her arm gently across his chest.

“I’m not going to hug you tightly, because of your ribs, but I’m still hugging you,” she said, as if it weren’t obvious.

He closed his eyes, resting a hand on the arm she’d draped over him.

“I’ll always be here, you know,” she said then. “You know that, right?”

“I know, Abby,” he said, still not opening his eyes.

She gave a soft sigh. “Ziva wouldn’t tell me what you said to her at lunch,” she said then, “but she didn’t have to. I saw her face. I know how to read it now. Just like I know how to read yours.” She shifted her head slightly. “And I know there’s nothing I can say right now that’ll help you. I mean, I could tell you not to think the way you’re thinking. I could tell you not to do what you’re thinking of doing.” She sighed. “But that would be like telling you not to be you. So…” He felt her shrug slightly. “I’m just going to be here for you. Like I always am.”

He gave a nod.

“Do you…,” she hesitated, then, “do you want me to spend the night?”

He gave a small smile, finally opening his eyes. “It’s okay, Abbs.”

She lifted away from him, her eyes studying his face. “Are you sure?”

He nodded again. “I’m going to be okay,” he promised. “Go home.”

She studied him a moment longer, then nodded. “I’m holding you to that.”

He just smiled more. And she smiled back. She squeezed his hand then, and stood up. “In that case, I think I will head home.” She smiled more. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, “sure.”

She squeezed his hand again, and let go.

After she left a little while later, he found himself consumed by a new feeling—guilt.

Because he’d lied.


Finally alone, Tim stared across at the typewriter. Ziva was right about one thing—it was his release valve. He lost time when he worked on it, and it was the only thing that solved the insomnia he used to suffer from. He found that, if he got up and wrote, he could sleep.

But, for some reason, he was afraid to go near it now. Afraid that, if he started typing…

He’d feel better.

And he didn’t want to feel better.

When they turned the lights out a few hours later, he still hadn’t touched it, and he fell asleep feeling just as desolate and confused as when he woke up this morning.


A soft noise woke him. Like a footstep. Or a sigh.

His eyes blinked awake, taking in the deeply shadowed room. It was still night—deep night, based on how black the window was.

But there was light in the room. The door was open, and light was pouring in from the hallway.

He tilted his head to see why, and found himself looking at someone silhouetted in the doorway, just standing there. Watching him. The light highlighted the gray hair on his head.

Reams.

Tim came fully awake then, panic filling him. He scrambled backwards on the bed, his feet getting tangled in the sheets. He shouted for help, but nothing came out of his mouth—his throat had closed up. He reached for the bedside table, for anything that could help him. His ribs grated, and pain sparked the headache behind his eyes.

Suddenly, hands were on his arms, and he was struggling to get free.

“Let me go!” he shouted. There was his voice! “Get off me!”

“McGee! McGee, it’s me!”

“No!” Oh God, he was going to die! Reams had come for him! “No! Get off!”

“McGee! Tim! Look at me! LOOK AT ME!”

Tim did.

Gibbs, looking just as scared as Tim had ever seen him, was the one holding him down.

He blinked a few times, confused. “Boss?” His voice shook, adrenalin still coursing through him. His heart felt like it was going to break more of his ribs. Oh God…it hurt.

“You’re okay, Tim.”

He barely heard the words. He couldn’t stop shaking. He was crying now, and he couldn’t stop that either, even though he really wanted to. A great heaving sob tore out of him, and he barely registered the arms that wrapped around him. He was crying into the shoulder holding him, painful sobs that tore at his ribs and his bruised stomach.

“I’m so sorry,” he said between sobs. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Gibbs said nothing. He just let him cry.

Which he did.

Until he passed out.


It was still dark when he woke up again, still night. A painful headache was striking itself against his skull—he’d cried so hard, he’d run out of oxygen. He blinked up at the ceiling, disoriented. He’d forgotten where he was.

“Hey.”

Tim turned his head, and blinked slowly, trying to focus.

Gibbs was sitting in the chair next to the bed, watching him with worried eyes.

Tim blinked slowly, his confusion overwhelming. “Boss? I…where…?” He looked around the room. “I thought…?” Hadn’t Reams been here?

“I know,” Gibbs said. “You thought I was Reams.”

That confused Tim even more, and he looked at Gibbs again. “I did?”

“Yes. And I’m sorry.”

Tim frowned, more confused now, but not because of Reams, but because….

“You…you just apologized. You…You’re not supposed to apologize.”

Gibbs smiled softly, then shook his head. “Are you sure? Maybe I need to.”

Tim stared at him for a long moment, then raised a hand to his aching head. It was too much to understand.

“You okay?” Gibbs asked.

“Headache.”

“I’ll get the nurse.”

“No,” he said, lowering his hand. “No, it’s okay.”

Gibbs said nothing to that, but he didn’t get up either.

They sat in silence for a while, until Tim looked at him again. Gibbs was watching him, a little like a hawk watching a prey. That disturbed him a little.

He blinked. “Boss, why are you—“

“Why are you sorry, McGee?”

Tim blinked again. “What?”

“You said you were sorry. Why? What are you sorry for?”

Oh. That.

“I’m…” He looked up at the ceiling again. “I’m sorry about Tara.”

“You think it’s your fault?”

Tim didn’t answer that.

“It’s not.”

Tim closed his eyes and swallowed. He shook his head once. “You don’t understand, Boss.” He opened his eyes to look at Gibbs again. “I involved her in what I was doing. She helped me and…” He looked down. “And now she’s dead.”

“She was dead no matter what you did, McGee.”

Tim looked up again at that. Gibbs leaned forward in his chair.

“If you want to lay blame, McGee, you should blame Abby. She didn’t figure out Matthew’s trick with the back-trace until Sunday night. If she’d figured it out in the morning, we would have gotten to you a lot earlier, before Tara was dead.”

Tim frowned. What? “No, Boss, Abby….You can’t—“

“No, I’m wrong. You should blame Ducky. If he’d figured out the connection between me and Reams earlier, we would have picked up Jarvis earlier, maybe even Saturday night. We might have snatched him without that Lensky character knowing about it—and he wouldn’t have alerted Reams, and then Reams wouldn’t have gone through your computers looking for the connection.”

Tim frowned even more deeply confused now. “I don’t—“

“And blame Ziva. She was the one who fingered Matthews. She should have done that faster. If she had, maybe we’d have been able to track him to Reams.”

Tim got it now. He shook his head. “Boss….”

“Or blame Tony. If he’d forced you to go out with him and Ziva Friday night, you might not have been kidnapped at all.”

Tim was fully awake now. He was watching Gibbs without blinking, waiting for the punch-line.

And Gibbs obliged.

“Actually, McGee, truth is, Reams would have taken you anyway. No matter what anyone did. And he would have found an excuse to kill Tara anyway, just to torture you, no matter what you did or when you did it. Because the real reason you were taken was because of me. I’m to blame. You wouldn’t even be in this mess if I hadn’t killed Reams’ son all those years ago.”

Tim’s lips parted. “I—“

“Am I wrong? It was personal, remember? Not because of you—because of me. So it’s my fault. Tara’s death. You in this hospital. What he did to all of you. I’m to blame.”

Tim felt sucker punched. He had seen it coming, but Gibbs was so deadpan about it, laying it out so coolly, he didn’t know how to respond. He didn’t know what to say.

“So,” Gibbs said, “I’m sorry, McGee.”

Tim closed his eyes, shaking his head. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t apologize. You know it’s not your fault. You’re just talking.”

“I don’t know any such thing.”

“Yes, you do!” Tim snapped. “You do. It’s not your fault.”

“Then whose fault is it? Yours? Did you kidnap those people? Did you plan to kill them when they were no longer useful? Did you plan to kill Tony? Did you plan to kill Aleksey Reams? ”

Tim’s eyes were open again, watching Gibbs. He didn’t answer.

“What’s the problem, McGee?” Gibbs asked. “You’re so certain it’s not my fault, but you can’t name the person whose fault it is?”

“Boss, please….”

“No. Who did this to you, McGee? Whose fault is it? Who are you so afraid of that you nearly hyperventilated when you saw me in the doorway, thinking I was someone else? Who really killed Tara Stokes?”

Tim just turned away.

“You know the answer, McGee. Say it!”

“Boss--”

“Say it!”

“Why are you interrogating me?” he shouted back.

“Because you need to say it,” Gibbs pressed.

“I don’t…I….”

“McGee!”

“Stop it!” Tim covered his ears with his hands. “Please! I am not one of your criminals!”

“I know that,” Gibbs said, but he didn’t let up his stare. He took a breath, and added, more quietly, “But I’m not sure you believe it.”

Tim was shaking now, lowering his hands from his ears, his headache almost blinding. “What do you want from me?” he asked tremulously.

“I want you to answer the question,” Gibbs snapped. “I want you to say it.”

Tim shuddered, bowing his head. “Fine. Okay. You win. Reams. It was Reams. He killed her. And nothing I did, nothing I could have done, can change that. He would have killed all of us.” He looked up at Gibbs, gritting his teeth. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

Gibbs stared at him for a long minute, but the intensity in his gaze was gone. Slowly, he nodded.

“It’s a start.”

Shuddering still, Tim closed his eyes and turned his head away.

He heard Gibbs stand, and a hand rested on his head. “It’s a start,” he repeated.

When he took his hand away, Tim turned his head back. He was still trembling as he wiped the tears from his face. He was surprised he’d had any left. His headache was merciless now, and he could feel his body shutting down to compensate.

Gibbs had sat down in the chair again, and it looked like he was settling in, planning to stay for a while.

“You know,” Tim said, fighting the growing stupor with a yawn, “I’m surprised all that yelling didn’t bring the nurses.”

Gibbs offered a crooked smile. “There’s a cop outside your door. I’m sure he waved them off.”

Tim’s eyes widened in surprise. “There is? Why?”

“Fornell’s still tracking down that terrorist cell. There’s no reason why they would be after you, but…” Gibbs shrugged. “I couldn’t take that risk.” He met Tim’s gaze evenly. “I’m not losing you.”

Tim didn’t want to smile at that, didn’t want to take comfort and feel hope, but he couldn’t help it. A tiny piece of the burden he was carrying felt like it had been lifted away, shouldered by someone else. Closing his eyes he nodded and turned his head away again, so Gibbs wouldn’t see it in his face.

And for the first time, he felt like maybe….

Maybe it would be okay.


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