Disclaimer: NCIS does not belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended.

A/N: Story takes place at the beginning of season three, between "Kill Ari" and "Mind Games."

A Father's Instincts

Back and forth, back and forth. Gibbs draws the sanding block across the skeleton of the boat in an endless, steady rhythm. Every so often, he brushes the back of his hand against the wood, admiring its silky feel. Though it's close to two in the morning, he has no real intention of stopping. He's wired up enough on coffee that sleep is pretty much out of the question, anyway. Besides, it certainly wouldn't be the first time he's spent the night in the basement.

Down here, life makes sense. There's nothing complicated about minimal tools and the simple satisfaction of working with his hands. And the repetition of the job makes it easy to block out thought. To forget about the other, not-so-simple stuff. So really, is it any wonder he spends so much time here?

The large room is silent except for the soft scraping of sandpaper against wood, so when Gibbs hears the front door open, the sound seems to echo through the house. What the hell? Since the last person to come in uninvited was a terrorist bent on killing him, Gibbs is justifiably on edge at the sound. Reaching automatically for his weapon, he goes to check it out.

Before he has gotten very far, however, he turns to see a familiar figure in the doorway at the top of the stairs. "Abbs? What're you doing here so late?"

Getting a better look at her, he sees that her face is free of her usual makeup, and her eyes are red-rimmed. Stupid question, he realizes. What else would bring her here in the middle of the night?

Instead of answering his question, she sniffs slightly and gives him a watery smile. "Knew you'd be down here," she tells him, coming down the steps.

"You should be home, Abby," he scolds softly. "In bed."

"I know. I just – I couldn't sleep. I can't stop thinking about it, you know?" She takes a shuddering breath and tries to smile again, but before she quite manages it, her face crumples. Immediately, Gibbs closes the distance between them, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. Her body is shaking – convulsing, almost – with the force of her sobs. "I miss her, Gibbs!" she all but wails, and the pure anguish in her voice makes him tighten his hold. "I miss her so much!"

"I know, Abbs," he murmurs, stroking her hair. "I know."

He wants to say more, to come up with something that might comfort her, but what can he say? Kate's dead, and even he can't do anything about that. He respects her intelligence too much to patronize her with meaningless platitudes, so he simply continues to hold her, rocking her gently back and forth, until she begins to catch her breath. When her sobbing has given way to quiet sniffles, he presses a kiss to the top of her head, and loosens his hold on her.

In response, she burrows her head deeper into his chest. Her voice is small when she asks, "Can I stay here tonight?"

He cards a hand through her hair again. "Any time you want, Abbs," he assures her. "You know that." Giving her shoulder a squeeze, he tells her, "C'mon. Let's get you up to bed."

"Uh-uh," she mumbles into his chest. "Not yet."

He raises an eyebrow, though he knows she can't see it. "You need to sleep."

She sighs heavily. "I know. But not yet, okay?" Her voice takes on a pleading note as she presses, "Can't I stay and help you down here? Just for a little while?"

Gibbs has to smile at that. For a moment there, she sounded exactly like Kelly used to, begging him to let her stay up past her bedtime. He can almost hear her voice again, see those wide, innocent eyes staring up at him. Just five more minutes, Daddy! Please?

And so, just as he almost always did with his own daughter, he finds himself giving in. "All right, Abbs. But then you're going to go get some sleep."

She nods agreeably and wriggles out of his grasp. Wiping her eyes quickly, she grins up at him. "Okay, then! Let's get boat-buildin'!"

Gibbs just shakes his head at her enthusiasm, glad to see signs of the Abby he knows. Taking her gently by the wrist, he presses the sanding block into her hand and moves to stand behind her. Hesitating only a moment, he pulls her tight against his chest, reaching around her to guide her hands with his own. For a while, he is silent, hoping the steady rhythm of the work will soothe her as it does him.

To his surprise, Abby is quiet as well. She merely nods at his murmured directions. That, more than anything else, tells Gibbs how much his forensics expert is still hurting. A quiet Abby just doesn't feel natural, somehow. And so even here in his basement, a place he usually values for its stillness, he finds himself missing her rambling explanations and long, off-topic soliloquies.

He lets her keep at it for a while longer, but the third time he hears her trying to stifle a yawn, he decides enough is enough. She's clearly exhausted, and there's no reason for both of them to be completely sleep-deprived tomorrow. So he spins her back around to face him and gently takes the tool from her grasp. "Time for bed," he tells her firmly, pressing a finger to her lips when it looks like she's thinking about arguing.

In response, she merely pouts. Once again, Gibbs is struck by the familiarity of the situation. Unbidden, an image forms in his head of another little girl wearing the same expression. But that's ridiculous, isn't it?

True, it's no secret that there is an almost father-daughter side to his relationship with Abby. After all, how many times has he heard Tony complaining that Abby gets away with things that would get him slapped upside the head? Still, though, Abby is an adult who can take care of herself, not a little girl afraid of the dark. Hell, Abby thrives in the dark! So what is it about the way she's looking at him that throws his protective instincts into overdrive?

With some effort, Gibbs manages to pull his thoughts away from the past in order to focus on the situation at hand. He turns to Abby, who still hasn't moved, and nudges her forward. "C'mon, Abbs. Let's get you up to bed before you collapse on me."

He can't quite suppress a smile as she heaves a dramatic sigh before reluctantly leading the way up the stairs. On the way to the guest bedroom, he stops in his own room for a second and begins rifling through a drawer. Finding an old t-shirt that should work as a nightgown for her, he tosses it to her. "Here. You can sleep in this."

With a quick nod of thanks, she slips into the bathroom to change. When she comes out, though, she's smiling again, and practically swimming in the well-worn fabric of the shirt. "Stylish, huh?" She twirls so he can admire the full effect.

"Oh, yeah," he assures her dryly, then gestures toward the door to the guest room, fixing her with a playful glare. "Bed. Now."

"Yes, sir!" She snaps to attention, bringing her right hand up in a salute. Grinning, now, she turns sharply on her heel and parade-marches over to the bed.

Gibbs can only shake his head as he follows her over. She scurries under the covers, but instead of lying down, she leans back against the headboard and draws her knees up to her chest.

"Hey," he says gently. "Can't sleep like that."

"Can't sleep at all," she corrects him. "Every time I try, I dream about her. And then when I wake up…it's like losing her all over again. I can't do it, Gibbs! I can't!" There are tears running down her face again, and once more, Gibbs finds himself wishing he knew what to say.

But he's at a loss. So instead of speaking right away, he just reaches over and strokes her hair, letting her cry. After a long moment, she looks up at him through her bangs. "How do you do it, Gibbs? How do you keep going after something like this?"

He sighs, wishing he had some magic answer for her. But since he knows there isn't one, he settles on the truth. "You take it one day at a time, Abbs." Closing his eyes briefly, he repeats, more to himself than to her, "One day at a time." When she doesn't reply, Gibbs takes command. "Come on, now. You need to lie down and get some sleep."

To his surprise, she obeys without argument. Rolling over onto her side, she grabs his hand. "Don't leave?" she begs, wincing as though embarrassed by her own clinginess.

In response, he draws the covers up to her shoulders and sinks down onto the edge of the bed. "I'm not going anywhere, Abbs," he murmurs, brushing her hair out of her face.

His feels an ache in his chest at the sight of her, curled up on her side with her hands tucked under her chin. Because this position, too, is so familiar. How many times did he sit like this on the edge of Kelly's bed after a nightmare, watching her finally fall asleep, secure in the knowledge that anything that might try to hurt her didn't stand a chance with her daddy there?

Deciding that maybe the situations aren't so different after all, Gibbs continues to gently stroke her hair. When at last he hears her breathing begin to deepen and slow, he leans over and places a soft kiss on her temple.

"It's gonna be okay, Abbs. I promise."

A/N: Feedback is definitely welcome! I'd love to hear from you.