Chapter 50

Monday morning, Ducky was at NCIS before sunrise. He finished preparing Midshipman Murchinson's body for the funeral home and left the paperwork on his desk for Mr. Palmer to handle when he arrived. That completed, the medical examiner faced the next item on his list. It wasn't strictly his responsibility to enlighten Abigail about the change in Anthony and Timothy's relationship, but as she had not yet figured it out, he thought perhaps he was the best person to undertake the difficult task.

He straightened up and headed for his destination. Fortunately, his quarry was as much of an early bird as he was.

When he reached the lab, it was the music that alerted him that she already knew. Abigail always played her music rather loudly, but this was far louder than he had ever heard it before. In fact, the last time he had heard noise this loud was several years ago in the Maldives... But now was not the time to be distracted by a trip down memory lane.

He looked inside to see his young friend at her desk, pigtails looking a bit less exuberant than normal. She didn't look up when he walked in, nor did he expect her to, as she could not possibly have heard him approach.

"Good morning, my dear Abigail." He stood directly in front of her before she noticed him. And at the sight of her expressionless face, Ducky sighed, knowing he should have spoken sooner, even if it had been construed as meddling. He walked over and turned her music off so he could hear, then punched in the code to lock the sliding door so their chat would remain confidential and undisturbed. He rolled a chair over and sat next to Abigail.

"My dear, I am sorry," he said. "I see you have learned about Anthony and Timothy."

She nodded, but said nothing. That worried him most. Still, he held his tongue. Abigail was not Jethro, who would not talk when life was bothering him unless forced to do so. Whereas, she talked more than anybody on the team, except perhaps Anthony. It would just be a matter of time. He gently rubbed her shoulder, wanting to give some measure of comfort and support to the young team member with whom he had worked the longest. Not as long as Jethro, certainly, but Jethro was more a friend — perhaps even an honorary nephew - to him. Of the younger generation — the ones he thought of as his honorary grandchildren — Abigail was the oldest. Still, in some ways, she was the baby of the family. As he had told Timothy some weeks earlier, they were the innocents in the group — he, Abby, and young Jimmy. In Timothy's case, his innocence was tempered by his experiences in the field and, more recently, in helping Anthony battle the demons that had long plagued the senior agent. Jimmy would lose his in much the same way — through repeated exposure to the grievous injury man can inflict upon his fellow humans. Yet while Abigail had been at NCIS far longer and had seen much in the way of horrific crimes — even knew much about the demons her own teammates had faced — she was perhaps far enough removed from it in her tidy lab that it had never dimmed her joy for life or tarnished her heart. Unlike Ziva, who had been forced to lose her innocence too early at the hands of one of the few men Ducky had ever wanted to personally escort through an autopsy — much as he had done his monsterous son — Abigail retained that childlike faith that good would always triumph and justice would trump all. Just as Ziva was the youngest in age, yet the oldest in experience, Abigail was quite the opposite. Ducky rather thought this experience would be a wake-up call for her: the first realization that things often don't work out the way we plan.

"I screwed up, Ducky, and I'm afraid I'm going to do it again if I don't get my head around this." Her voice was soft, quite unlike the normal Abigail.

"How so?"

He listened as his gentle inquiry triggered all the words he had come to expect from Abigail, the hundreds and thousands of syllables all adding up to a single epiphany: "And now I don't want to do anything that would send Tim to CyberCrimes, but I don't know if I can just act like everything's fine."

He nodded, and pulled her in for a hug. "My dear, I wish I had some easy answer for you. Watching the one you love choose another is perhaps one of the most painful experiences we can endure, and it is perhaps doubly so to admit that their new love is a better match than you could hope to be." He sighed, and Abigail's eyes widened.

"You, too, Duckman? Is that why you never married?"

Ducky nodded. "It was a case of what I thought at the time was 'right person, wrong time.' With the years came greater wisdom, and I have realized that had I truly been the right person for her, the time would not have mattered. I wish I could say that takes away the pain, but all it can do is mitigate the hurt we feel with the knowledge that we are walking the path we now are on for a reason. And as I have seen Jethro look for a replacement for Shannon over the years, I have come to realize that I would far prefer to have nobody in my life than to be tied to the wrong person."

"You don't have nobody, Ducky. You have us!" Abby squeezed him in one of her overpowering hugs. After a minute, she softened her grip and buried her face in his shoulder. He could just make out her muffled voice as she said, "So how do I get past it?"

Ducky pulled away and tipped her chin up so they were eye-to-eye. "You go out there today and do your job. It won't feel normal today, nor perhaps for several days. And if you ever need to talk, to have a space where you can allow yourself to experience these feelings without worrying that Jethro or Timothy or Anthony will appear, my teapot is always ready to provide comfort." He bent in and kissed her on the cheek. "I don't believe anybody expects you to be your usual self right away. As long as you and the boys can work together, Jethro will understand if it takes a few weeks for everybody to return to normal. But the old normal will not be the new normal. It likely will be something quite different."

She pulled away. "Thanks, Ducky," she said. "Oh, I need to get ready — Sacks and Fornell will be here any minute."

Ducky nodded. "Quite all right, my dear. Once the team has tied up all the loose ends on this horrific case, perhaps you and I can go out for lunch. My treat." He was pleased to see a genuine smile, the first one of the morning, light up Abigail's face.

Gibbs arrived at the bullpen just as Fornell and Sacks were exiting the elevator. The rest of the team was plowing through the piles of paperwork a major case like this generated. His lips twitched a bit at the thought of being able to hand it all over to the FBI.

"Gibbs," Fornell said.

"Tobias. Hang on." He called Abby to come up to the bullpen. Ducky had alerted him earlier that Abby knew about Tony and McGee but seemed to be handling it OK. However, he wanted to judge for himself.

"Hey, Gibbs," she said when she bounced into the bullpen a few minutes later. "I've got good stuff." The team crowded around, Fornell and Sacks just slightly apart.

"You always have good stuff, Abby," Tony said. "Is it enough to nail these dirtbags?

"You doubt me? Please!" She mock-pouted. "I'm hurt. Of course, I came up with enough. Ringpolle was so careful about erasing any links between the abduction sites and his home base that he didn't bother to be as careful with home base itself. It was a veritable water park of interesting fluids. I've got them all running now. With all the DNA databases available, we should hopefully be able to match quite a few to clients of Ringpolle, and then you guys can nail them, too."
Gibbs gave her a small smile. "Not us, Abbs. Fornell and Sacks are handling this. We got our killer."
"And the Bureau appreciates all your hard work on this case, Jethro. I hate to admit it, but we might never have uncovered the true extent of this case without you and your team."
Tony turned to stare at Fornell. "Toby! You're actually thanking us? In public? Usually you just tell Gibbs in the elevator where nobody can actually hear you. Abby, did we get that on tape?"
Before she could reply, Gibbs glared at him. "McGee."
"On it, Boss," Tim said, reaching over to head-slap him.
Tony looked over to see Tim smirking at him. "Great, Boss. Give him ideas."
"Deserved it, DiNozzo," Gibbs said. He'd kept an eye on Abby throughout the entire exchange, and she seemed all right. Still, when he dismissed her, he could feel the mood in the room relax just a bit.

It was like that the next few days. When they were all together, there was an undercurrent of tension, as if none of them were quite sure where to step for fear of treading on someone else's toes. It didn't improve until that Friday when they caught a case with more technology involved than Gibbs could ever hope to understand, no matter how slowly McGee and Abby explained it to him. Until then he'd avoided sending Tim down to the lab for extended periods of time. Second B or not, he couldn't justify making it any tougher on them when he could tell all three were trying so hard to work it out on their own. He could afford to give them space, so he did. Until they had a dead lance corporal with more electronics than a Radio Shack and suspicious activity in his bank account.

"McGee, get with Abby and don't come back until you crack those codes."

"On it, Boss."

Three weeks later, Tim got off the phone when Ziva texted him to say that she and Tony were on their way back from a lunch run. He had just arranged Saturday delivery for the piano he had bought as a surprise for Tony. Gibbs would be there to help move furniture, and Jimmy was going to be on hand in case the moving crew knocked it out of tune while they brought it into the house. But Ziva and Ducky had plans that day, so he needed Abby's help to get Tony out of the house.

Last month when he'd walked in to find Tony telling Abby about them, only to see Abby sobbing into Tony's arms, he didn't think they would ever get back to a comfortable friendship. He'd spent most of the first week hyper-aware of everything he and Tony said and did at the Navy Yard, not wanting to hurt his best friend any more than necessary. But also not wanting to make Gibbs think they couldn't work together effectively any more. Looking back, he realized the end of that week was when things started to settle down. Gibbs had sent him down to the lab to work with Abby on cracking the encryptions on a bunch of computers. He and Abby had been at it for about 12 hours when he realized they had just reverted back to old habits: teasing one another and sharing the Caf-Pows Gibbs would bring. By the time they finally cracked the codes — and the case — Sunday afternoon, the long hours, little sleep, and huge amounts of caffeine seemed to have carried them through the worst of it. Tony had stopped down a couple of times to make them sleep and eat, and the second time, Abby had just waved him off and kept typing.

"I'm good, Tony. You guys take a nap — futon's under the desk. I'll sleep when you're done."

"You sure, Abbs?" Tony just looked at her.

"Go. Sleep. I promise, no surveillance. Timmy, hit him if he snores."

Tim had just nodded, his brain circuits too fried to do anything else.

Tony was still asleep when Tim woke up two hours later to find Abby typing away, sucking down a Caf-Pow. Tim looked at the clock.

"Abby, it's 3 a.m. I'll take over; you need a nap. It's your turn to hit him when he snores."

She just nodded. "Hey, Tim?"

He'd just raised an eyebrow.

"I know I said no surveillance — and I didn't take pictures, but after my last Caf-Pow I took a break and saw you two snuggling. You looked... right. Like you were supposed to fit together." She pulled out her pigtails and took off her collar and bracelets. "I've been thinking a lot about what Tony said last weekend and some advice Ducky gave me, and it helped. And then after you went to sleep, I realized that we were working together like we always do and that hadn't changed. I always thought we worked together so well because we had this past, and maybe we do, but I was a little afraid that I wouldn't be able to still do that — to get lost in the computers and codes and cases because it would hurt too much working with you. And it still does hurt, a little — when there's time to think about it, but even that isn't as bad. This was the first time that seeing you together hasn't made me kick myself for being an idiot and letting one of the best men I know get away. Because you didn't get away... you just didn't end up in the same place as I did. And I can't look at you two and not see that it might be a different place than I imagined you'd end up, but it's the right place for you guys. Yes, it still hurts sometimes, but I know at some point it will stop hurting. And I didn't know that a week ago, and somehow that makes a difference."

Tim didn't know what to say, so he settled for pulling her into a hug and kissing her on the temple. She gave him a small smile, then walked over to the futon and flopped down in front of Tony, her back to him so they were spooning.

Things had gotten easier after that. He and Tony didn't feel like they had to tiptoe, and day by day, Abby seemed to be more comfortable around them. So when Sarah had suggested they host Christmas for his family and the team, they hadn't hesitated. Abby and the rest of the team had jumped at the idea; Gibbs was even bringing Jack along. When it came time to arrange this half of Tony's present, he had brought the others into the plotting. Tony would get it a couple weeks early, but that was fine. The other half of the present would wait for Christmas Eve.

After lunch he headed down to the lab and filled Abby in on the plan. When he first asked her to help, he was glad he had waited until Tony was at Bethesda to bring it up. She had been so excited that after she'd told him what a sweet guy he was loud enough for the entire Navy Yard to hear, she'd hugged him until he began to understand how Tony felt when his asthma kicked in. He wasn't sure how they'd gotten from being afraid to tell her about them to her being their biggest fan, but they had and that was all that mattered.

AN: Wow, it's finally done! It's been an intense two months telling this story, and I've frequently been amazed at how many people are reading it and enjoying it. You guys rock! And this story wouldn't be complete without me giving HUGE props to my friend Kyrie, editor extraordinaire and partner in evilocity! She came in about halfway through this tale and through hours of writing, editing and brainstorming has made it immeasurably better. Thanks, Kyrie! I hope you guys have enjoyed this story as much as I've enjoyed telling it. I'm a little sad it's over, but I have a lot more stories to tell in this universe, so Tim and Tony will have some new adventures to share before too long.