Title: Cut and Run
Rating: PG-13 for now
Spoilers: None in the first chapter – will warn if there are later on.
Summary: NCIS without Abby is as foreign a concept as a desert without sand.

Author's Note: I really gotta stop starting new fics. XD

"Okay, final test. Can you set the Major going with this sample?"

Gibbs slows his pace at the words, and the male voice that answers. Abby never lets anyone touch her mass spectrometer – it's the piece of equipment she's most protective of; a fact that anyone who's worked with her for more than a week is aware of. Something's not right; he can feel it in his gut.

Rounding the corner, he halts a few feet away from the scene unfolding in front of him. Abby's standing next to her machine, watching a guy he's never seen before insert something into it. Neither of them notices his arrival; they're too absorbed in the work to register his footsteps.

"You gotta angle it a little downward on the right hand-" Abby breaks off as the guy slides the sample home, surprise in her eyes. "Whoa. How did you know?"

"The machine in my college lab had the same problem. Guess I just got used to it," he replies, shrugging.

"Looks like I'm leaving my babies in good hands," Abby says with a small smile, watching him press the buttons to start the sample running.

Gibbs clears his throat, deciding he's eavesdropped for long enough, and both she and her guest look up instantly. The man's face registers only curiosity, but Abby's eyes widen, and she twists her fingers together in front of her nervously.

Looks as though his gut was right.

"Hey, Gibbs." Her voice is falsely bright as she looks from him to her lab partner. "Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, this is Simon Chang. He's gonna be filling in for me while I'm away."

The guy – Simon – holds out his hand for Gibbs to shake, but the agent is too busy staring Abby out. "Away?"

Awkwardly dropping his hand back to his side, Simon looks over at Abby with obvious confusion. "He doesn't know?"

"He does now," she murmurs, almost to herself. "But I gotta get you back to Director Vance's office. Gibbs, can you wait here one second?"

"It's okay," Simon interjects, before he can reply. "I remember the way. Elevator, fourth floor, straight ahead, right?"

"Are you sure?" she asks anxiously, watching him strip off the lab coat he's wearing. "I don't wanna just abandon you-"

"Don't worry, I got it." The guy smiles. "Talk to you later. And it was nice to meet you," he adds to Gibbs, although that's gotta be a lie, considering that Gibbs has barely acknowledged his presence.

Once he's left the lab, Gibbs asks, "'Away' where?"

She scuffs a foot against the floor, not meeting his eyes. "Edinburgh. Scotland. I'm going there to study."

"For how long?" he demands. She makes no reply, and he moves into her personal space, employing one of the techniques he uses to get answers from suspects without thinking. "A week? A month? How-"

"Two years." Her quiet answer cuts across his words, as defiant as her eyes as she meets his stare. "I'm renting a room from Ducky's niece, and finishing my doctorate at Edinburgh University."

The answer stuns him into silence, and he can only stare after her as she spins and walks into her inner office, her shoulders tense. NCIS without Abby seems as foreign a concept to him as a desert without sand, and it takes him a few moments to absorb the information. When he can move again, he follows her into her ballistics lab, finding her reassembling a Smith & Wesson .22 with practised efficiency.

"When were you gonna tell me?"

"As soon as Director Vance approved my choice of replacement," she says shortly, dropping the gun into its evidence bag and notating something on the chain of evidence voucher. "So, tonight."

As she makes to move past him again, he grabs her arm, bringing her up short. "Why, Abby?" he asks, searching her face for an answer he can't find. "Why can't you study here?"

Incredulity fills her face, and she shakes him off, continuing on her way. "Because I work sixteen hour days, Gibbs! I don't have time to research and write my thesis and get your results all at the same time – I barely have enough time to breathe as it is!"

"I mean in the US. Why does it have to be Scotland?" He struggles to understand; confusion and alarm give his voice a sharp edge he doesn't intend it to have. "Two years without seeing your friends, your family? Us?"

By 'us', he means himself, but he's never been the type to lay his emotions bare. If she'd been looking up at him at that moment, she'd have seen the raw pain in his expression and known how much her impending absence affects him. But she doesn't; she's too focused on evading his questions.

"Because if I stay here, I'll keep working for NCIS. I'll visit during term breaks, now and then. I just need to get this done now, or I never will."

Gibbs steps into her path, putting his hands gently on her shoulders. She swallows, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears, and stares fixedly at his shirt, refusing to meet his eyes.

"You never mentioned needing to get away before, Abbs. What brought this on, huh?" He keeps his tone as gentle as he can make it, resisting the urge to enfold her in his arms and keep her there.

She doesn't answer, and before he can push her, one of her machines chirps. She spins to answer its call, scrubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand, and he grants her the respite, waiting until she's finished noting down her findings to ask the most important question of all.

"When do you leave?"

"Monday," she says, her hands busy opening the next evidence bag.

It's six days away, and he's not ready to lose her yet. Torn between demanding that she tell him the real reason she's running away and nursing his wounds like a defeated animal, he chooses the latter. When she turns around, his name on her lips, he's nowhere to be seen.