When the call comes, they gather from far and near.
It's been five years since their last meeting, five years since they went their separate ways in a slow, bitter unwinding.
McGee and Abby ride together to the airport. Her mascara is smudged around her eyes and her hands wring in her lap as they speed down the freeway. They are silent save McGee's satnav, which speaks needless instructions from the small screen on the dashboard.
McGee had picked up Abby from her apartment, watched her kiss her four-year-old daughter goodbye as she stood on the front step. Something in his stomach niggled at the sight of the young girl, as it always did, with her light brown pigtails and wide eyes in a round face, and the little girl had turned towards Tim as Abby had slid into the car, the bright green gaze curious and sad. Tim had waved, but had been met with only a stare in reply.
McGee, for his own part, had left his girlfriend Chloe in their bed, wrapped in sheets and sympathy as the phone had roused them both from sleep. She had pushed back her curtain of blonde hair from her face, folding him in her arms as he hung up the phone.
" Bad news?" she had asked, knowingly concerned, reaching for her glasses on the nightstand. Her fingers brushed against his, a tacit sign of solidarity.
" Abby," he admitted, turning his face to look into her eyes. He felt his gut churn and burn, destroying the last vestiges of the good dream he could barely remember before the ringing had broken into his sleep. " It's not good. I don't know how much time - "
Leaning forward, she pressed a warm kiss against his cheek, " Go. Call me when you know anything."
When they reach the airport, they find the flight from San Diego has landed early. When Tony does not answer his phone, the two of them split up to cover more ground, and playing on a hunch, McGee enters the bar nearest the luggage carousel. He finds Tony, morose and drunk, the scotch in front of him clearly not the first. His hair needs cutting, and his suit is ill fitting, as though he has recently lost too much weight, quickly.
" Probie!" he cries when he sees the younger man, who is older now than Tony had been when they had first met. He flings his arms out, grinning a wide, unfocused grin as he gets up from the barstool. " A drink for my friend," he calls out to no one in particular, picking up his own abandoned glass. " To rule 50," he says seriously, knocking the shot back. " To the end of everything."
Tim leans down, weary, and picks up Tony's bag. He doesn't answer, but pulls his cell from his pocket. " Abby?" he says as she picks up, " I found him. We're in the bar, ground floor." He doesn't wait to hear her disappointment, but hangs up with a snap. " Time to go Tony," he prompts, and is surprised when Tony simply sighs, and nods.
Tony looks up, his eyes bloodshot and disillusioned. " It always seems time to go."
When Abby finds them, she wraps her arms around Tony's waist, ignoring the lingering scent of alcohol. He buries his face in her lily-white neck.
" How did this happen Abs?" he asks, and McGee can hear his voice waver.
She doesn't have a response, but the way she squeezes him tighter says more than words ever could.
They take him to his hotel and put him in the shower, turning the faucet on cold. Tony curses and swears, but doesn't fight, and as they close the door they hear him sob, just once.
Abby helps herself to a Red Bull from the mini-bar and downs it in one go before dropping onto the end of the bed. The sheets are utilitarian and bland, and she spreads her pale skinned hand over them, smoothing out the wrinkles. " He drinks too much," she says, finally, lifting her eyes to look at Tim.
" He has done for years."
McGee flicks through the channels on the tv, not even watching as news anchors flash their over-white teeth and prattle on about the days' events. He paces up and down on the worn carpet until he hears the water shut off in the bathroom.
When Tony exits, he is wrapped only in a towel, but they have all known each other far too long to be worried about modesty. A new scar mars his chest, and McGee instantly feels guilty that he hadn't flown out west when a particularly vicious winter had ended in another bought of pneumonia. He knows Tony spent three weeks in the hospital, wired up to machines and tubes, one lung collapsing during treatment and costing Tony another 'almost'.
He flops on the bed, flinging an arm over his eyes. " What time do we…?" he trails off, and his voice is hoarse.
Abby curls up in a ball in the chair, wrapping her arms around her knees. McGee looks at his watch. " Visiting hours begin at 6."
Tony's hair is wet, and falls across his forehead in a streak. As he sighs, his chest rises and falls, and even from across the room Tim can hear the wheeze. He wishes Tony would put on a shirt.
The three of them remain in silence. No one moves. The screen flickers its light and sound, and three pairs of eyes follow the movement. Five minutes pass before Tony sits bolt upright, and runs for the bathroom. The door slams behind him, but they hear the sound of retching through the thin wood.
When McGee looks up he meets Abby's gaze, and isn't surprised by the tears that streak her face. For a minute he wonders why his sight is beginning to blur, until he feels Abby's hand against his cheek. When she pulls her fingers away, they are wet.
He is surprised to find he is crying too.
The hospital is cold and sterile, and the smell puts Tim instantly on edge. He looks over at Tony; the elder man has clenched his jaw, his face impassive, but he holds Abby's hand with a tight grip that betrays his unease. Only under the harsh light does Tim notice the streaks of grey now infiltrating Tony's hairline, and any other time, he would tease him about it. But now the words die on his lips. It seems fitting.
When they get there, Fornell is sitting out in the hallway, pretending to read the paper. He pushes himself up from the hard plastic chairs when he sees them approach, and nods his head in greeting. " McGee, Di-Not-So," he addresses, his voice brusque but laced with something that sounds like relief. " Took you long enough."
" Nice to see you too Fornell." Tony's voice sounds the strongest it has all day, a mixture of amusement and irritation that makes the retired FBI agent smirk.
Abby, who has been to the hospital most days, wraps her arms around the ornery agent in a fierce but fleeting hug. When she pulls back he looks vaguely uncomfortable but helps her off with her black mackintosh.
" How is he?" she asks, licking her lips, brushing her bangs back from her forehead with her wrist.
" Being a stubborn bastard," he tells her with a disgruntled huff. " Always was a terrible patient. I'll tell you, I wish Ducky was here - only one ever could keep that man in a hospital bed."
The four of them stand for a minute, feeling the loss as thought it had just happened, rather than being three years ago. The heart attack had been sudden and unexpected, fingers clutching at a shirtfront, and a clatter of falling surgical tools against the sterile floor. Even Palmer's quick thinking and expert CPR hadn't been enough. His funeral had been the last time they had all been in one place. And now this.
There is silence, and then a sigh. Fornell flicks his hand towards the door. " You should go on in. He won't want to see you, but then he doesn't really want to see anyone right about now."
With a nod, the three of them walk towards the door. Tim watches as Tony hesitates, stepping an inch closer to Abby, their forearms brushing. It's been four years since he could innocently draw the same comfort from her touch, and for a brief second, the loss of their relationship stings anew.
He reaches a hand out and turns the doorknob. It opens with a push.
" Don't know what you all think you're doing here McGee, but you're one light."
Tim has avoided coming to the hospital, even though he lives in DC, even though Abby has called, and pleaded, and left teary messages on his machine, so the sight before him is as much a surprise to him as to Tony who has come from across the country.
The third round of chemo has left Gibbs completely hairless, even his eyebrows and eyelashes gone. His weight has plummeted, his face pale and ashen, and as Abby steps forward to take his hand, Tim can see the paper thinness of his skin. His voice, though gruff from the drugs, still resounds around the room and has the two men snapping to attention.
Abby and Gibbs both laugh at the sight, though the simple response leaves Gibbs coughing and straining for breath. As he gasps in the oxygen, he catches the expressions of the two men, identical in their discomfort.
" What, you never seen a dying man before?"
There is a twinkle in his blue eyes that belies his appearance, and has the two men stepping up closer to the bed. Tony's hands are shoved in his pockets - a little boy sent to the principal's office - and McGee clasps his hands behind his back.
" I don't know Boss, I'm having a bit of a 'Yankie Doodle Dandy' moment here." Off of the looks of his friends, Tony shrugs his shoulders. " 1942, James Cagney." He trails off, scuffing one shoe on the floor. " Just don't start asking me about the curtain calls."
Gibbs raises what would be an eyebrow, and studies his ex Senior Field Agent with a wry gaze. " Heard you collared Gardner. That's been a long time coming."
" Two years," Tony agrees, nodding his head, falling back on the easy patter of shop-talk. " Thought we might never catch that son of a bitch."
" Goes that ways sometimes," Gibbs assures with a nod, knowing without being told that Tony needs the reassurance, that despite finally putting a bullet in the man he had been searching for more than twice as long as he's had his own team, he feels as though taking two years (too long) is the same thing as failing in the end.
Gibbs does not allow Tony to wallow for long, instead he turns his sharp gaze to where McGee stands. " How's the fiancée?"
McGee feels his heart skip in his chest and his eyes flick to Abby's raven ponytails. " Um…I'm not engaged Boss," he stammers.
Gibbs expression is unreadable. There is a beat of silence before: " Huh. My mistake."
In the lobby McGee puts the phone to his ear and counts the rings. Five…six…seven…
" Hello?" Chloe's voice is lilting and girly, and for a moment it's not what he expects to hear.
" It's me."
She is instantly sympathetic, and McGee vaguely remembers liking that about her, her empathy. " How is it?"
He can hear voices coming from the room, laughing and joking and for a moment, he doesn't know how to answer. Then he does.
" It's bad."
When McGee returns, Abby has disappeared, and Tony is sitting on the chair next to the head of Gibbs' bed. The two men don't hear McGee open the door, and he realises quickly that they are mid-conversation, so he remains outside, listening at the crack.
" Where is she Tony?"
" You think I know?"
" I think you should know. You think I didn't keep tabs on Jen after Paris?"
Tony sits for a beat in silence, staring out of the window. Rain drips down the panes. " It…it went south Boss. Fast. I don't…" He trails off, then, " She was in Nairobi, last I knew. Intelligence."
" She safe?" The question is one of true concern, masked in indifference.
" Safe I think, but not returning my calls."
The laugh is low, and gentle. " Women. I tried to teach you," Gibbs reminds, but from his position in the doorway McGee can see the older man recline back against the crisp white pillows. His eyelids flutter closed.
McGee is about to step into the room when he is stilled by a hand on his shoulder. " He loves her."
When he turns around, Abby's face is light in the darkness.
" He always did."
The second day it is still raining in the district, and Gibbs has had a bad night. He is frustrated and in pain, and shouts at the nurse and Abby in turn, forcing the former to administer stronger drugs, and the latter to fight her tears. She slips from the room holding a handkerchief against her eyes, and Tony follows after with a call of her name.
McGee stares at the man as he lies, withered in the bed. " You shouldn't yell at her Boss," he admonishes, straightening the sheets where Gibbs has twisted them.
Gibbs' eyes flash and he yells. " Do I look like your Boss, McGee?"
Without words, Tim follows Abby and Tony into the hall.
They drop Tony at his hotel and drive back towards DC. In the moonlight darkness, Abby turns her face towards McGee. " Why do you think it didn't work out between us Tim?"
He drives another mile before replying. " I guess sometimes things just don't."
As he drops her off, he presses a kiss to her cheek, and sees a small figure at the window upstairs. Bright green, curious eyes watch as Abby climbs the stairs to the apartment. Her daughter stares at him as he drives away down the street.
When he gets home, Chloe meets him at the door, and he makes slow, depressed love to her until the sun comes up.
On the third day, nurses bustle around the room, moving wires and checking monitors. Gibbs sleeps for most of the time they visit. A motherly matron with curly hair brings the three of them sandwiches that she knows they won't eat and rests a hand on Tony's shoulder as she walks past.
" How long?" the young man asks, and his voice is soft.
She shoots him a sad smile. " Not long now," she says.
He is not sure whether it's an apology or a promise.
Machines beep, frenetically. Tim is jolted from his position asleep in one of the hard plastic chairs, and as he stands he feels a crick in his neck. But he doesn't think of it for long, as the bed in front of him is suddenly surrounded by medical staff.
" Excuse me Sir, but you're going to have to leave." With a tight grip, one of the nurses steers him out with a strength that belies her size, leaving him abandoned in the hallway.
Tony stands three feet away from him, coffee cup in hand and a panicked look on his face.
They face off with each other in the hall.
" I think this might be it."
Abby, McGee and Tony stand around the bed. They have had their final words, their final moments with the man that their lives had, for so long, revolved around. Apologies and thank yous, liberally spread. Abby's eyes drip with tears and she clutches at both of their hands.
Behind them, the door opens quietly. A faint scent of jasmine trickles into the room and heavy boots echo on the floor.
" Am I too late?"
All three of them turn their heads to see her, both surprised at her presence and beyond relieved at her arrival.
The trio break apart, Abby coming up on the other woman first, flinging her arms around her neck in a desperate, weeping hug. Despite her smaller stature, Ziva strokes Abby's hair in a maternal fashion, murmuring soothing words in her ear. After a moment she draws back and looks at the two men still standing stock still across from her.
" McGee," she greets warmly, leaning up to kiss his cheek. Close up, he can smell the scent of her skin, the jasmine and sun and sandalwood, and can feel the roughness of the scar that has run down her cheek since Somalia. He allows himself to hold her tight for longer than he normally would.
" It's good to see you Ziva."
She says nothing to Tony, who doesn't look surprised at the apparent dismissal. Instead, she steps up to the bed, to the withered giant laying there, his body ravaged by time and disease. She presses a hand against his cool, frail cheek. " Shalom, Jethro."
For the first time that day, his eyelids flutter. " Kelly?"
" Ziva," she corrects, but her voice is barely a whisper. " I think it is time for us to say goodbye."
Tim is fairly certain he's been waiting for her. As she speaks, he closes his eyes, and within seconds, the beeping starts again.
It is a half hour before the doctor comes to find them.
Tim sits, holding Abby's hand in a grip that he can't relax. They both try to pretend that they have not been watching Ziva and Tony, who stand down the hall in uncharacteristic quiet, her arms wrapped around his waist as he presses gentle, desperate kisses to her face and ears and neck. They disentangle as the doctor approaches.
His words are simple: " I'm sorry."
Tony curses, hitting an open hand against the wall, before pressing his forehead against it. Ziva murmurs soft, melodic words in her native tongue, reaching up to tear a tiny hole in the neck of her shirt. Abby nods her head, understanding, but does not try to stifle her sobbing.
Tim thinks of Kate and Jenny and Ducky, the family that Gibbs had had and the family that he had lost, and hopes that somewhere, somehow, in all the different beliefs about God, that somebody is right.
The day of the funeral is too sunny for the occasion. They stand by the gravesite, four wraiths swathed in black. Ziva, who has been camped out in Tim's guest room for a week, holds a smooth, small stone in one hand. The fingers on the other hand are laced, skin-to-skin, with Tony's. Tim doesn't know if the two of them have really spoken much since her return, but he can tell just by looking that it is only her touch that holds the elder man together.
As she bends down and places the rock on the headstone, she whispers something that makes Tony laugh. When she stands, he wraps his arms around her, bringing his lips to hers.
Tim realises he isn't the only one watching when he feels a hand slip into his. He recognises the gun-powder-fake-fruit tang without even looking; the scent has been forever imprinted on his memory.
" Do you think she'll stay?" The question is soft, and curious, and wistful, but she knows Ziva just as well as he does.
" As long as she can. It's Mossad. No promises."
There is a long silence, and then, " Where's Chloe?"
McGee knows what the question is. He can read Abby's every mood, every insinuation, every inflection. He can read volumes in her smiles. " She's…not here."
There is more silence, then: " I'm glad."
He thinks for a minute, before entwining his fingers with hers. " Abby?"
" Why do you think it didn't work out between us?"
As they stare across the sunlit ground, at their friends, taking comfort in each other's nearness, as they watch the leaves beginning to turn and flutter to the ground, Tim catches sight of Abby's expression in the corner of her vision.
She is calm.
" I think, perhaps, there's a season for everything."