"May I help you?"
"I'm looking for, um," the young woman rooted through her purse, looking for something. She pulled out a small slip of paper. "Agent...Jethro Gibbs. I have a job interview?"
"So you're Chris' replacement?"
"I guess so, ma'am," she replied.
"Oh, please, ma'am makes me sound old. Agent Caitlin Todd," Kate stuck out her hand. "Kate."
"Pleased to meet you, Agent Todd. Patricia Reed. Pat." The young woman shook her hand. Her grip was firm, confident. Her blonde hair was tied neatly in a French braid and she wore a pantsuit over her shapely form. In all, very professional. Kate liked her instantly, and so offered some friendly advice.
"Don't mention the coffee. It's always there, and it's not decaf. That's all you need to know. He's pretty tough, but fair. Don't apologize for anything and above all, do not call him –"
"Miss Reed?" The voice cut Kate off. Agent Jethro Gibbs strode toward them, short silver hair glistening in the fluorescent lights. His piercing blue eyes took in everything, memorizing the details of the encounter for later reference. As his eyes swept over Pat's figure, Kate found herself inexplicably glad that Pat wasn't a redhead.
"Yes," Pat replied. Kate was heartened. She hadn't had a chance to warn Pat about Gibbs' 'sir'-hatred, but perhaps the girl just wouldn't say it.
"Follow me."
Kate flashed Pat a thumbs-up and mouthed, 'Good luck' before returning to her cubicle to finish a report.
Thirty minutes later, Pat and Gibbs emerged from the conference room. Kate scrutinized both for any sign of how the interview had gone. Pat was smiling, remarkable after her first encounter with Gibbs. Gibbs, as always, was inscrutable. They approached Kate's desk, continuing to talk.
"We'll call you soon, Miss Reed. Thank you for coming by." Gibbs stuck out his hand, clearly ending the interview.
"Oh, thank you, sir," Pat replied, trying to be gracious. Kate cringed. She had said the 's'-word.
Gibbs stiffened. His mouth tightened into a very thin line and his eyes hardened. Kate prepared herself for the explosion she was sure was coming, and wondered if she should rush to Pat's aid. There was no explosion, though the alternative was far worse.
"Miss Reed," he said icily. "While your credentials are excellent, an NCIS agent needs more experience. Agent Todd was in the Secret Service. Agent DiNozzo was a cop. Perhaps in a few years..." he finished, dismissing her.
Pat's eyes filled, though she was smart enough not to let Gibbs see. To her credit, she managed to walk with grace until she was out of Gibbs' sight. Then she bolted for the restrooms.
Kate was saddened. She had really liked the young woman. She was also curious. "Hey Gibbs," she called. He looked up. "What's up with you and 'sir', anyway?"
"I just don't like being called 'sir', all right? That is my prerogative," he added sternly.
Kate knew when to shut up. However, Gibbs wasn't the only one around NCIS with answers.
"Hi, Ducky," she said softly.
"Caitlin! What a lovely surprise. I was just finishing up on this young man, who had the misfortune to get caught in the middle of two firearms. Poor fellow," he sighed.
Kate glanced briefly at the body on the table before turning back to Ducky. "Interesting," she said. "But actually, I have a question."
"Ah, of course. Fire away."
"Do you know why Gibbs hates being called 'sir'?"
Ducky stopped. He looked through her, nodding slightly, clearly thinking.
"Yes...yes I do." He paused. "Jethro was, as you know, a gunnery sergeant in the Marines. As such, he was accustomed to addressing officers as 'sir' and not being addressed so himself. I think that is part of what makes him uncomfortable."
"And the other part?" Kate pressed, sensing more.
Ducky sighed. "I don't know this for sure," he warned. "But I have gathered some information about Jethro's early life in my years here. His father, unfortunately, was not exactly a saint. He drank heavily and would, on occasion, strike his only son. He also forced his son to call him 'sir'. I believe this is a large part of why Jethro hates being called 'sir'; it identifies him with his father."
Kate was stunned. She had never known anything about Gibbs' early life, and this was not exactly the kind of thing one was thrilled to discover. It explained a lot, though.
"Thanks, Ducky," she said absently, moving back toward the elevator.
"You're welcome, Caitlin," he replied sadly.
Kate walked slowly back into the bullpen. She saw Gibbs at his desk, working hard as usual, and felt an unexpected upsurge of emotion. She had never bothered to think what was behind the irascible former Marine's behavior. Now she was troubled to learn of his unfortunate past. Why had he never told anyone? Stupid question, she admonished herself. Gibbs never told anyone anything.
As she settled into her seat, watching Gibbs across the aisle, she could almost see the boy inside the man. A small, almost scrawny little boy, trying desperately not to cry as his father railed at him.
'You will respect me!'
'I'm sorry! I didn't mean – '
'You're a disrespectful little brat, boy! What do you say?'
'Yes, sir.'
Kate blinked back tears. She wanted to reach out to the little boy, to help him, but the little boy was now a grown man. He had a thick shell, too, keeping everyone out. How could she help him?