One week later:
It was pitch black outside when his phone rang, never a good sign. Years of training had him instantly awake as he sat up and grabbed his phone, quickly glancing at the caller ID. "Yeah, Gibbs." He was instantly concerned when the voice at the other end didn't respond back. "McGee, what's wrong?"
~Grace... Grace is gone, Boss.~
"Ah, damn, McGee." Gibbs swung his feet onto the floor, grabbing a pair of jeans. "Have you told Tia yet?"
~No, she's so little and it's the middle of the night. I shouldn't have even called you, but... ~
"But nothing. Grace was Tia's mother and someone special to you for a very long time. I'm leaving right now, will you be all right until I get there?"
~Yeah, thank, I don't know...~
"We'll get you through this, Tim. Now put on a pot of coffee and I'll see you in a few minutes." Gibbs reached his car as he closed his phone. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't need the coffee right now but it would give McGee something to focus on while he waited.
Traffic was light and he made a phone call as he drove. They had planned for this and all he needed to do was tell Vance that it was time, he would take care of the rest. The team would mean well, but Gibbs knew from experience how stifling a great deal of sympathy would be at a time like this. Call complete, he just concentrated on getting there.
The front of the house was dark when he arrived, but the driveway and garage were on the side, the advantage of a corner lot. As soon as he turned, Gibbs saw that the side porch light was on, as was a light in the kitchen. Gibbs parked in the driveway and used the key McGee had given him to let himself into the house.
Tim was leaning against the counter, staring at the coffee pot as the water dripped through. He didn't acknowledge Gibbs' arrival, but started talking in a low tone. "I'm not ready for this. I'm only half way through the books. There wasn't enough time."
"There never is, Tim." Gibbs stepped up behind him and laid his hands on McGee's shoulders. "Those books might have some good ideas, but I've watched you with Tia and you're a great dad. You'll know what to do. Now, come on and sit down for a few minutes. Staring at the coffee won't make it brew any faster." Keeping one arm wrapped around Tim's shoulders, he steered the younger man to sit at the kitchen island.
Knowing that McGee needed something to focus on or he'd become stressed out, Gibbs told him what was happening. "I've called Vance. He and Ducky will let the team know when they get to the Yard, but he won't let any of them come right away, not until you and Tia are ready. Jackie will be here at nine unless she hears differently and Pamela will find out about the funeral arrangements. You're on bereavement leave as of this morning and I'm taking a week of vacation."
Tim looked at him in surprise and Gibbs smiled and squeezed his shoulder. "Hey, you didn't think I'd let you and our girl go through this alone, did you?"
Tim gave a watery laugh. "Thank you."
Tia came out of her room about 07.30, rubbing her eyes and dragging her blanket behind her, obviously confused by the late start of the day. "Daddy, Saturday?"
"No, baby, we're staying home today." Tim scooped her up and sat down on the sofa with her on his lap.
"Go see Mommy today?"
"No, we can't go see Mommy, sweetheart." Tim hugged her tight and kissed the top of her head. "The doctors tried real hard to make Mommy better, but they couldn't and it was time for Mommy to go to Heaven."
"But when's she coming back?"
Gibbs had stayed back, not wanting his presence to distract Tiana and he leaned heavily against the kitchen wall as the plaintive question tore through him. He could only imagine what it was doing to McGee. He moved closer as Tim patiently explained it to the little girl.
"She can't come back. It doesn't work that way, but now she's an angel and she'll always be watching out for you."
"Mommy's an angel now?"
"Yeah, she's a beautiful angel and she's not hurting anymore."
"She's not sick anymore? Then why can't she come home?"
Tim started rocking Tiana as the tears finally came. "Because if she came back she'd be sick and hurting again."
"But I want to talk to Mommy."
Gibbs quietly sat next to them, his own eyes bright as he gently rubbed her back. "You can still talk to her, Tia. She'll always be in your heart, so she can always hear you."
She turned her head and looked at him, still clinging to Tim. "Really, Papa?"
"Yeah, really. My little girl, Kelly, and her mommy went to Heaven a long time ago and I still talk to them."
They weren't sure if their answers had satisfied Tia or if she was just too overwhelmed to ask anymore. Either way, Tim just held her close and rocked her ever so slightly. Gibbs moved even closer so she'd feel him with them.
When Jackie arrived at 0900 and quietly let herself in, she found them in the same position. Tiana had cried herself to sleep clinging to Tim with Gibbs still rubbing her back. Giving them both a sad smile, Jackie picked up Tia's blanket and draped it over the three of them before sitting in Leon's old recliner to wait.
When Tim finally felt Tia stirring against him, he kissed the top of her head again. "Hey, sweetheart."
She leaned back to look at his face. "Mommy's an angel?"
"Yeah, Baby, Mommy is an angel now."
"Can I go play now?" She wiggled and Tim helped her down.
"Sure, Baby. Why don't you play for a little bit and then we'll all have breakfast together. What would you like?"
"Sprinkle cakes?" As soon as she asked, Tiana started tearing up again and Tim rushed to reassure her.
"Mommy would want us to celebrate that she got her angel wings today. It's kinda like a new birthday for her, so sprinkle cakes are perfect. Do you want to help me stir the batter?"
Tia nodded and when Tim promised he'd come get her when it was time to stir, she ran to her room. Jackie was concerned, but Gibbs had spent the last few days reading the same books McGee had on the subject.
"Kids need to grieve in smaller chunks."
Having reviewed that chapter the night before, Tim continued the explanation. "It's because otherwise, they get too overwhelmed to cope."
Tim quickly gathered the ingredients for the special pancakes before moving closer to Tia's room to watch out for her. After about ten minutes she burst into tears and he scooped her up. "It's okay, Sweetpea, Daddy's here." When that wave of tears was over he sat her on a kitchen stool and put her to work.
Jackie watched as Tim and Tia carefully made a pancake batter from scratch, adding in yellow cake mix and a healthy dose of rainbow colored sprinkles. Even Gibbs got into the act, handing the eggs one at a time to Tia for her to hand to her father. As the pancakes were cooked, Tim quickly made a syrup out of whipping cream and powdered sugar. The elaborate pancakes were piled onto four plates, covered with the syrup and more sprinkles. Plates filled, they all sat at the table, Tia on McGee's lap.
Vance arrived just as they were cutting into their sprinkle cakes. He laid down a large package and helped himself to more of the pancakes staying warm in the oven. After taking a large bite, he decided to go with the teasing approach. "Okay, Jackie, why don't our pancakes ever taste like this?"
Tia spoke up before Jackie could say anything. "They're not pancakes, they're sprinkle cakes. Mommy makes them for my birthday."
She started to tear up again and Tim kissed her, hugging her close. "That's right, and every time we make them we can remember how much Mommy loved you."
"Like when I talk to Mommy?"
"Exactly." Gibbs reached over and wiped a bit of syrup off her chin. "Remembering keeps them with us in a special way."
"Okay." Satisfied for now, Tia settled back against her dad and started eating again. As they were finishing, Tia became curious about the package Vance had brought. "What's that?"
Vance looked at McGee. "It's from Ms Hunter."
Tim closed his eyes for a second, realizing what it was. Taking a deep breath, he explained it to his daughter. "It's a picture of Mommy now that she's an angel."
Sitting up straight, Tia stared at the package. "Can I see it?"
"After we finish eating, Sweetie. We don't want to get syrup on it."
Tia nodded, her eyes wide as she tried to shove a whole pancake in her mouth. Tim chuckled and pulled the fork back. "Let's cut that up, okay?"
Without saying a word, Gibbs reached out and cut up the last two pancakes on Tiana's plate. Once the little girl was finished eating, Jackie took her to wash up, leaving the men to clean up in the kitchen.
They met in the living room and Tim sat down on the sofa with Tiana and the wrapped picture. Gibbs sat next to them, Leon and Jackie Vance each perched on the arms of the sofa. McGee had given the artist a variety of photos to work with, but he had no idea what she'd come up with. "Okay, Sweetheart, you ready?"
Thumb in her mouth, hanging onto Tim's shirt, Tia watched intently as Tim unwrapped the package.
"Mommy." Tia let go of him to reach out and touch the glass as they all studied the drawing. Tori had used one of the earlier photos of Grace, before her elegant looks were ravaged by illness, chemo and radiation, combined with the most recent picture of Tiana, giving a breathtaking image of mother and child, Tiana lovingly cradled in her mother's wings.
"It's beautiful." Tim looked up at Vance as the older man discreetly wiped his eye. "Tell her thank you, it's beyond anything I could have imagined."
Vance nodded, not trusting his voice. He'd never have imagined the death of someone he'd never met would have affected him so much.
Tia pulled back from Tim enough to lean against Gibbs. "That's my mommy."
Gibbs felt his throat tighten up and bent to kiss her forehead. "I know, she was very beautiful, just like you."
"We're going to hang this in your room, Tia, so Mommy can watch over you. What do you think?"
She threw herself at him. "Thank you, Daddy." Tim held her through another round of tears, rocking her and murmuring nonsense words as he rode out the storm. When she calmed down again, Gibbs bent down to kiss her before going out to the garage for the tool box. Leon took the picture as Tim stood with Tia and they followed Gibbs back to Tia's bedroom.
"How about here? That way you can see her when you wake up every morning." Gibbs pointed out a spot and Leon held up the framed drawing in it's new home.
"It's perfect, Papa."
It was early afternoon, the Vance's had gone home but the team hadn't arrived yet. Gibbs finished building a shelving unit for the garage and came in to a silent house. He crept down the hall to find Tim standing in the doorway of Tiana's room watching as she carried each of her toys and stuffed animals over to the picture of her mother to introduce them.
He came up behind Tim, resting a supportive hand on his shoulder. Tim didn't turn around but the worry was evident in his voice. "Did I do the right thing with the picture?"
Gibbs watched as Tia introduced her favorite doll and started telling a very complex story about the doll, her go bag and something about Uncle Leon's favorite cookies. "You've given Tia a way to keep her mother part of her life instead of hiding all the memories away. Believe me, that's a lot healthier than how a lot of people cope."
Tim suspected that Gibbs was talking about himself, but he only gave a slight nod. Gibbs watched for a few more minutes then leaned close to whisper in Tim's ear. "Ya' did good, Daddy."
a/n - Next is a one shot that I'll post tomorrow, but as a bonus to everyone, would you like the newest chapter of Slave of my Heart this afternoon? Yep, I finished it last night