Author's Note: There's some sex in this chapter. A lot of coping, non-coping, conversations, revelations, crazed threats. I had a hard time getting a hold on Gibbs' emotions in this chapter. I think he's sort of spiraling off into outer space. Whereas McGee… Oh McGee, I do love him a lot, but I miss my Tony.
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Gibbs coped in the only way he knew how.
He retreated to his basement, to his bourbon, to his woodworking. He needed to use his hands; he needed to let his mind go dark. Just for a bit. For tonight, at least - until he had to emerge and face everything and everybody again. Sympathetic faces saying sympathetic things. Sometimes sincere, sometimes fake.
He didn't know if he could stomach any more of it.
Saying goodbye to Tony had been hard.
One of the hardest yet, and there had been plenty of goodbyes over the years.
If he shut his eyes and let his imagination off its short tether, he could hear DiNozzo's meaningless chatter. Maybe he should have given it a closer listen a week or so ago. Maybe all of the clues were there, right in front of him.
He reached up and turned on the old black and white television. The 9 o'clock local news murmured in the background, the picture a fuzzy, undulating whirl. The shooting in NCIS headquarters was now officially old news. The PR department had gone dark; there wasn't anything else to say. Best to let time bury whatever doubts and questions lingered.
Gibbs poured himself a generous portion of stiff liquor. Tonight he'd drink not to forget, but to calm the rage and the grief that was quickly becoming some poisonous, burning hybrid in his gut. Throwing back a swig, he sat heavily on his workbench and regarded the project in front of him.
A birdhouse. He'd been working on it for weeks and weeks.
He studied its edges, ran his fingers over it and considered the proportions and slight imperfections. It was a damn fine house for a bird. He'd never come out and say it, but he almost couldn't wait to install it on some fence post - maybe out in Stillwater, someplace wide and open.
"I like it," Tony had said with a gleeful sort of admiration. "But will the birds be able to afford the mortgage?"
Gibbs' lip twitched at the memory as he took a small bit of sandpaper and began rubbing out whatever rough spots he could find.
He drank, refilled and drank some more. He rubbed and rubbed and rubbed. The TV programming switched to something else, something with an obnoxious laugh track that hovered annoyingly in the background.
It was a gradual shift, but the more he worked on this birdhouse, the more he began to hate it. It never seemed smooth enough; it just wasn't good enough. There was something fundamentally flawed with it. Defective. He tried and tried and tried to fix it until his fingers were red and raw.
Gibbs finally dropped the sandpaper and ran the back of his hand across his sweaty brow. He realized that he was breathing heavily. Stomach acid burned at the back of his throat. The birdhouse sat there. Unfinished. It needed a perch, and he had the thin, three-inch peg of wood all ready to tap into the hole he'd drilled last week.
So he grabbed the hammer and started to tap, gently.
And then he started to bang on it, not so gently.
The house splintered, bits of it jetting off of the worktable. He hit it harder and harder. The racket echoed around the basement. He smashed and destroyed, over and over again, until it was a ruined pile of wood chips.
"God damn it!" Gibbs swore loudly as he chucked the hammer at the wall and then used his arm to sweep the whole mess of the destroyed birdhouse onto the floor. He looked at it - the spread out bits and pieces - and laughed, breath heaving in and out.
"How d'you like it now, huh?" he yelled at the vacant stairway. Splinters stung, embedded deep in his palm. "Fuck."
The front door slammed shut up above.
Gibbs froze, but then he stepped towards where he kept his back-up gun.
"Am I interrupting something?" Samantha Ryan asked from the landing, voice deadpan and calm.
He stopped and turned. "Sam," he greeted, hiding any and all surprise at her sudden appearance.
She was wearing a thin jacket and, under her arm, she cradled a file folder. She had dark smudges under her eyes.
"Sit," Gibbs invited, an automatic response. "You look tired." He moved to empty a jar of nails, but she shook her head.
"Not tonight." Sam stared at the splinters of wood on the floor as she slowly descended the last flight of stairs. "You worked so hard on that birdhouse."
He shook his head. "Not hard enough."
"You worked even harder building your team, but for some reason, it keeps falling apart at the seams." She set the file on the newly cleared off table. She tapped it, before saying, "You'll never forgive me, but that doesn't matter to me. As long as I know I was able to give you answers… without you needing to come out and ask."
Gibbs stared at the file. "How much of that is redacted?"
Sam's answer was blunt. "Read it."
He didn't move to open it. "You know, Sam… When you work with someone for a decade, they become more than just a coworker."
She stayed quiet, letting the usually taciturn man speak his somewhat broken piece.
He went on, "They become a friend."
Silence hung between them. Sam broke it, "I know you'll-"
"Shut up," Gibbs spoke sharply, "And tell me what you did to my friend."
She hesitated, wary of his sudden mood swing.
"Does no one see what's going on out there?" he went on. "That man they're talking about on the news… That's not Tony. That's not the man I spent ten years working with."
"I get it," she said. "You're hurt."
Gibbs studied her face for several moments. His disbelief was bald. "Excuse me? I didn't quite get that."
"Smells like a cover up. DiNozzo was a convenient scapegoat, wasn't he?"
"Say it," Gibbs demanded. "Tell me what you did to him. In detail. How you did it. Everything."
"I didn't do anything," Sam defended herself, voice low and urgent. "DiNozzo was too curious. He was trying to protect McGee. I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn't have it. They'd already gotten to him. Somehow; I don't know how. Or who. There was nothing I could do."
"So it's about McGee," Gibbs pressed.
"Read the file. Please."
"And yet you told me nothing. Until now. Now you have all the answers. Now I'm supposed to feel grateful. Is that what you want from me, Ryan?"
"My job, Jethro-"
"Fuck the job!" Gibbs snapped. "I'd give up this fucking job ten times over if it meant I could save my kid." He turned away and ran both hands through his hair, letting them linger on the crown of his head.
"Guess I didn't realize how close you two were." Her statement was as emotionless and stiff as ever.
He spun around. "Get out." A demand, not a request.
Sam stepped away in surprise when she saw the watery brightness in Gibbs' eyes. She hadn't taken him for a particularly emotional man, but now she could tell how worn to the quick he was. "I'll need to take that file with me."
"Oh, no you don't," he growled. "I know how you work. You made a copy. Redacted anything incriminating. You act like you've done me a favor."
"I have done you a favor."
"If I see you again," Gibbs explained. "I'll shoot you dead, and that's not an empty threat."
She stared at him. There was something unhinged and predatory in the glare he had pinned on her.
But he wasn't done yet. "I'll go to prison with a smile on my face. But first, I'll find Kort, and I'll do the same to him."
"Kort?" Sam seemed confused. "What does he have to do with anything?"
"Ziva told me all about his extracurricular activities."
"I had no-"
"Do I need to give you more of a head start?" He moved towards the gun locker, and he only stopped when he finally heard feet retreating up the stairs. He almost laughed at yet another relationship gone extremely south, but instead he shook his head as he tried to untwist the nerves knotted in his middle.
Alone again, and standing in the sea of splintered birdhouse, Gibbs stared towards the file. He hadn't the heart to sweep it up right now. Slowly, with the stiffness of an aging man, he sat on the bench and began to read.
Ziva David sought solace in sex without meaning.
She smoked a cigarette while naked in someone else's hotel room bed, the sheets haphazardly flung all over. She sat against the headboard and let an odd little smile linger on her lips. Sex with her old friend Adam was just as she remembered it. It was comforting and familiar.
"Can't you do that outside?" the man beside her requested, brow raised as he waved at a billowing cloud of second-hand smoke. "I don't want to spend my vacation acquiring an upper respiratory condition."
"I smoke when I am stressed," she answered simply. "You know that."
"Nothing much stresses you out. What happened?"
She licked her lips. "I do not really want to talk about it."
"Fair enough." He looked at the ceiling.
"Is it?" Ziva leaned over and put the cigarette out in a glass of melted ice.
"I don't know," Adam shrugged. "You've never been good at sharing."
"True." She gave him a sideways glance.
"I kind of just want to fuck you again," he admitted.
"I enjoy your honesty."
The sex wasn't graceful. It was rough and hard and fast. They grunted like animals and made the box frame squeal with their wild movements. This was just what she wanted right now. She was going to fuck and fuck and fuck until Tony slipped right out of her mind.
Tim wasn't really coping at all.
After a battery of interviews with counselors and other mental health professionals, it was collectively determined that Tim had apparently phased out of merely wanting to kill himself.
Now he just wanted to torture himself with the news media's portrayal and analysis of Tony's spectacular final act. The dramatic violence of it seemed to have caught the attention of various news outlets, from local to national.
Holed up in his private room, and with the aid of his smart phone, Tim obsessively poured over article after article of the incident. He even read the comments, which ranged from calls for prayers to hoping somebody burned in Hell… to the need for more gun control to the need for less gun control… to wild assertions that members of law enforcement were notoriously unstable to other wacky hypotheses that somebody had slept with somebody else.
He streamed the days old newscasts. Watched Scott Pelley, Gwen Ifill, Charlie Rose and a whole parade of talking heads gnaw hungrily on the news fodder. He saw the FBI press conference.
Sound bites raced through his mind, some of them on repeat.
"…an act of workplace violence arising from a dispute over a job performance review…"
"… at least four guns registered to his name…"
"…a troubled fifteen year veteran of law enforcement, with a checkered past of both commendations and reprimands…"
"…Sometimes people just snap," a police psychologist in a sharp pantsuit was explaining in the current video. "These are people performing very stressful jobs. Oftentimes, they have their whole lives wrapped up into it. Losing control is a real threat to them…"
There was a sudden knock, and Tim shut the phone off hastily to look up at a familiar face in the doorway.
"Hi," he greeted, warily. He tried to fight off the drowsiness by sitting up straighter in the bed. It was difficult, considering the bulky cast encasing his wrist. He blinked.
Dr. Cranston was smiling kindly at him. "Can I come in?" she asked.
God, she looked so much like Kate. It was freaky. An unwelcome lump formed in Tim's throat.
"Uh, sure," Tim shrugged. "Been a long time." He looked down into his lap.
"It has." She stepped through the doorway and settled into the chair beside him. "And a lot has happened, hasn't it."
He eyed her, not unkindly - but rather with curiosity. "Why are you here?"
"Word gets around."
He winced. "Great." The last thing he needed was the revelation of his becoming an absolute basket case getting around. And it would spread like wildfire if Tony- He stopped his thought and winced.
"Don't worry, McGee." Dr. Cranston rested a hand briefly on his shoulder. "You're doing okay."
He breathed out a sigh that barely hid a small sob. "You really think so?" Tim couldn't decide if his own question was sincere or not.
"You're a strong person, McGee," she asserted with confidence.
His green eyes studied her face for traces of a lie, even a little white lie. He didn't know what he was right now, but he suspected "strong" wasn't a particularly accurate descriptor. The other day he'd been a hair's width away from blowing off his own face with Tony's Sig Sauer. Tim held a chapped lip between his teeth as he looked away. "Shit," he breathed out.
"They're ready to set you free from here," Cranston said. "Do you feel ready for that?"
Tim shrugged. "I guess."
"You seemed interested in your phone. What do you have going on there?"
She sat back. "You can talk to me, Tim. You look like you need to talk, but you just don't know how."
"I need to be left alone," he countered. "That's what I need."
"You've been left alone. This is where it's gotten you."
Tim looked away. He was both annoyed and strangely heartened by Dr. Cranston's persistence. She wasn't giving up, not on him and probably not on anybody else she worked with.
Not only did she look like Kate, she acted like her, too. The lump in his throat returned with a vengeance.
"I think about him all the time," he admitted quietly.
She did not move to interrupt.
"I dream about him…" he paused before quickly adding, "I know that sounds weird. But I can't get him out of my head."
"You two were very close," she stated because she knew it was true.
"We are. I've never had a friend like him before." Tim rubbed his uninjured hand over his weary face. His throat tightened, so he thought it would be best to remain silent.
"You're not ready, are you?" she then asked, voice low and gentle.
"To say goodbye."
Tim swallowed. "Goodbyes make everything real."
"That's not a bad thing, McGee. Eventually, you'll have to accept what is real."
"Not real, then," Tim amended. "Final."
She went out on a fragile limb and said, "He deserves a goodbye from you."
A look of resentment quickly spread over Tim's face.
The limb cracked under her weight and fell to the dirt below.
"With all due respect, doctor," he said, "what he deserves is to not be dead." He then laughed without humor. "And we can't forget that I'm the one who killed him. I made a terrible mistake up in that office; I will never forgive myself."
"I still think you need to talk," she pressed. "But if you also need more time before you can do so, I can respect that."
"Thank you." Tim spoke with sincerity.
Dr. Cranston stood up from the chair and buttoned her jacket. "But don't bottle it up, okay? Soon you'll need to share some of that burden. I know Gibbs-"
"Don't say it," Tim begged.
"He's worried about you. All of them are."
He looked at the wall. "He says he doesn't blame me, but I think he does. Secretly."
"It's not about blame-"
"Yes, it is. I almost want him to blame me. I can't handle this, what's happened, what I've done. I can't."
"You can." She rested her hand again on his shoulder.
Tim's throat was tightening yet again, but this time he did not retreat into silence. A sob bubbled up and out of his chest. He wheezed once before shaking his head, vehemently. "I'm falling apart."
"I'm supposed to be the one keeping everybody else together. Don't you understand?"
"I do, Tim. I do."
They sat together for a bit, making quiet small talk. She offered to drive him home once the discharge paperwork came through, but he refused with a shake of his head and a quiet, "Thank you."
McGee. Always polite.
Before leaving, Cranston leaned in and gave him one more bit of advice. This one from raw, personal experience. "Keep him not only in your head, but in your heart, too."
Tim breathed in a shaking gulp of air and seemed deeply embarrassed by the tear that suddenly knocked itself loose from his eye. "God, you look just like Kate," he said out loud, repeating his earlier mental thought. "I miss her so much."
Suddenly breaking from her usual distant relationship with patients, Cranston tugged him in for a brief hug. Her embrace was warm, and she smelled like vanilla. He wanted that warmth to stay with him forever, or at least for today.
But he knew it wouldn't. It wasn't his to keep.
That afternoon, Tim was finally discharged from the hospital. While he stood in the huge lobby of the hospital, alone and dressed in the clothes he'd been wearing the afternoon of his wild car ride, he suddenly remembered that he would need a ride home. His car had probably been impounded who knows where.
He'd never felt so completely out of place in his life. It was like an out of body experience. People passed him by, never giving him a second - or even first - glance, all of them wrapped tightly in their cold weather jackets and their own personal dramas. He navigated the open space without really knowing where he needed to be.
Tim knew he shouldn't have driven Abby away last night. Truth was, he did need time to just be, but that was a hard concept to explain to somebody like Abby. And fresh from a conversation with Dr. Cranston, he wasn't entirely sure his way of thinking was for the best. He dug his phone out of the plastic Food Lion bag all of his other belongings had been quickly shoved in. He should have called somebody before leaving his room. He should have taken Cranston up on her offer. He'd already be on his way home. Maybe they could swing by the kennel and pick up Jethro, if Abby hadn't already done so for him.
He should have called his family. His mom. His dad. His sister. Somebody.
Wandering over to an empty cluster of padded lounge chairs arranged family room style, Tim sank heavily onto one of them and stared at the black screen of his phone. Should he?
God, his mom would have a heart attack.
What would he say?
What could be said?
"Hi, how's your day? Good? Great! Me? Oh, I'm just fresh off my first ever suicide attempt. But other than that, it's all fucking peachy, thank you for asking. P.S. I killed my best friend the other day. Shot him right in the chest. Yeah, he bled all over. Don't worry, though! I'm okay! P.S.S. Thinking about quitting my job, moving to Canada, and never touching a gun again."
He woke the phone up and decided to call Abby.