Pointless but Traditional Disclaimer: Not my characters.
This is not at all what I'm expecting to see in the finale, btw—that's the fun thing about NCIS; they're always taking the stories in ways I would never have imagined, and it's pretty much always better than anything I could come up with. But this was fun to write so I went with it.
I don't know why I'm on such a Gibbs kick lately. But there are worse things, I suppose!
It hadn't been so bad at first. The charge that he had obstructed justice didn't make him feel angry or defensive—it made him want to roll his eyes and snort in Parsons's smarmy face. Gibbs did not consider himself a vain man, but he knew he had strong morals, and that his unconventional methods helped him take these morals from theory to practice.
Plus, there were powerful people on his side. It would blow over.
But later, sitting with his lawyer, listening to Chegwidden's conversation with Tony and Ziva and McGee, watching Abby fidget with a purple band on her wrist so persistently that it snapped and she looked startled, he felt his confidence waver.
And after that, when everything went to hell and Parsons's team examined every file that so much as mentioned Gibbs, made a mess of the evidence lockup, temporarily suspended the rest of the team, and ransacked his house looking for additional indications that Gibbs was a renegade agent…well, that's when his confidence disintegrated into a haze of anger.
He could've managed it, he thought later, if it hadn't been for the house. He could've managed it if they hadn't gone downstairs and confiscated his sniper rifle; he could've managed it if they hadn't taken his tape player and his small collection of cassette tapes—even the one Mike gave him that held nothing but cantina music. Even the one of Kelly playing the piano for him, so many years ago.
For a little while, Gibbs was nothing but angry. He stormed into the woods, into the cabin he'd been piecing together as a hobby, and turned off his cell.
The idea of letting his team help—it grated. Partially, yes, he wanted to protect them, despite the fact that they'd been involved in a good number of the things he was in trouble for and despite their insistence that they'd brought some of this down onto themselves. But partially he felt a deep, selfish craving to handle this one on his own, to take down the bad guys—who kept foolishly pointing out that they weren't the bad guys here, as if condescending phrasing would help Team Gibbs like them better—and return, triumphant.
"Maybe you ain't as noble as you like to think, Probie," the specter of Mike Franks drawled in his ear. "You got all those rules, and they sure as hell aren't helping you now."
They found him, of course.
"We're not letting you do this on your own," Ziva said, her eyes troubled and her chin set.
"Did you really think you could get rid of us that easily?" asked Tony, looking at Ziva.
Gibbs sighed. "They love your old cantankerous ass," Mike's ghost chuckled as McGee dialed a number on his personal cell.
"We found him. I'll text you the address."
"Lawyer," Tony explained, jerking his thumb towards McGee.
So his team ended up helping. Of course. He should've known he wouldn't be able to keep them out. They were a team, and they were a family, and even if he was the only marine among them, they all lived by the Corps motto.
"Loyal bunch of kids you got there," murmured Mike. "Semper Fi, huh?"
Gibbs had to agree.
Not that it actually helped, in the end.
After court, when it came down to the bare, hard knuckle of the thing, it became very simple.
He would not be jailed.
He would not be permitted to work for NCIS any longer.
He would be allowed back into his house. And the matter would be dropped.
So really, it was all very simple, all very black-and-white. And he looked at Chegwidden, and he looked at Parsons, and he realized that he was tired. Fighting couldn't last indefinitely. It had to draw to an eventual close, and despite the past few exciting weeks of yelling and running and outsmarting and shooting—all the things that Gibbs had been doing expertly his entire life, the things that make him feel like a young crackerjack agent who knew what he was doing and was damn good at it—this time, they had made him feel old.
"Okay," he said.
It was Vance, who miraculously managed to escape from the entire debacle unscathed—despite calling in favors of questionable legality, disobeying several direct orders from the Department of Defense, showing blatant preference for Gibbs's team over all others, and never quite denying his part in the murder of Ilan Bodnar—who got permission for Gibbs to return to NCIS one last time, to clean out his desk and say his goodbyes in relative dignity.
It didn't feel much like dignity to Gibbs, though, the way his team's eyes kept following him mournfully. It certainly didn't feel like dignity when he went downstairs to autopsy and Ducky for once was unable to find the right words to smooth things over and lend his departure a philosophical tint. Ducky tried a few weak platitudes while Palmer sniffled, and around the time Palmer pulled his glasses off, swiped at his eyes, and then flung his arms around Gibbs's neck, Ducky gave up altogether.
"Have you spoken to Abby?" he asked, and the quaver in his voice made Gibbs feel like squirming far more than Palmer's open display of grief.
"I tried," he said finally.
Abby had locked her lab and turned her music up.
"She says she refuses to accept it," McGee had explained. "I think she doesn't want to let it be real, so she's decided not to deal with it at all."
Gibbs had sighed for what felt like the fiftieth time that day. "Okay," he said. "Okay. You keep an eye on her, Tim."
It still came as something of a surprise later, when he had gone through his desk and unpinned his pictures and neatly packed his backpack, to find that Abby had not changed her mind and trotted upstairs to insist that he wasn't allowed to leave. Feeling her absence rather acutely, he turned reluctantly to his—no, not his, Tony's—team.
"We'll walk with you, boss," Tony said. McGee and Ziva were already halfway to the elevator.
Gibbs thought for a moment that one of them might flip the switch, give him one last moment in the blue light of his office, or maybe say they'd discovered a loophole and that this was all going to work out after all, but it was a long, silent ride to the ground floor.
Vance appeared out of nowhere as the four of them stepped out of the building, silently walking with them to a grassy spot near the parking lot. It was almost uncomfortably warm in the sun, and the air felt thick with tension and dissatisfaction.
It crossed Gibbs's mind that goodbyes without Abby and Palmer's open emotions bleeding all over everything would at least be a low-key affair. So it surprised him when Ziva broke both the silence and her heretofore impressive show of having everything under control by stepping close and clutching at his sleeve just above the cuff, saying "they can't do this, you can't leave," in a voice tinged with desperation. Gibbs glanced at the three men behind her, whose serious faces turned downwards, then looked back at Ziva. She searched his face with wide, shiny eyes. Her chin was trembling, he noticed.
"Don't leave," she said, voice breaking, and he could hear the unspoken plea, the please don't leave me, the please, not again. For a moment his head rung with echoes of Kelly saying "Daddy, don't go," echoes of Ziva sobbing in the Vances' living room—too many fathers and daughters torn apart, too many losses.
He heaved his fifty-first sigh of the day as he folded her into his arms, into a real hug, a long hug, the kind where you hold on and rock back and forth. He smoothed a rough hand over her head, feeling her hair hot from the sun. "I'll be around, Ziver," he murmured in her ear.
Tony stepped forward as he held Ziva, and for a wild second Gibbs thought Tony was lining up for a hug of his own. Then he realized that Tony was waiting to catch Ziva when Gibbs released her. Just in case she needed it. Of course.
Eventually he did let go, gently steering her between DiNozzo and McGee. She didn't even attempt to wipe her cheeks where the tears had spilled over, and McGee began searching through his pockets as if finding his handkerchief was the most important task he'd been set all day. Come to think of it, it probably was.
Tony was less easily diverted, standing straight and stoically meeting Gibbs's eyes with an expression that was part regret and part something Gibbs couldn't identify.
He wanted to say something, but Tony's eyes said clearly that the new Team Leader already understood what Gibbs meant. So he gave Tony a brief, hard hug of his own after all, because a handshake simply didn't feel like enough.
Unlike Tony, McGee didn't look like he understood anything. Handkerchief search completed, he stood there wide-eyed as Gibbs turned towards him, and it made him look like the boy he was when he first started with the team, the green, idealistic newbie who hadn't yet carved out his niche and hadn't quite caught up to the fast pace of his coworkers' banter. He moved slowly into the hug Gibbs offered, and Gibbs thumped him twice on the back, hard. "I'm not dying, McGee," he reminded the younger man, hoping to knock the dismal expression off McGee's face. He pulled back just in time to catch both Tony and Ziva wincing. Oh.
"And they say I'm insensitive," Mike Franks snorted in Gibbs's head.
Vance got a firm shoulder clasp. There was more to be said there, and both of them felt it, but neither could think of anything to say.
For a moment after the last touch dropped, they stood there regarding each other. Then Gibbs turned and left them standing there, pressed together in a solid group, looking after him.
Last time he left—when he actually left—it hadn't been nearly this traumatic. One kiss on the cheek for Abby and a kind word for each of them, and he'd been out the door.
He'd been recovering from an explosion and a coma then, and he could remember exactly how the burns on his face had stung and how his brain had felt slightly lopsided in his skull.
Even so, this time Gibbs felt much, much worse.
It was strange to settle back into his own house, but slowly, he put it back to rights. He kept his phone close. Just in case.
Tony plodded down the stairs to Gibbs's basement exactly one week later.
"What's up?" Gibbs asked, waving him to the bottle of bourbon on the counter. Tony shook his head and took a seat instead.
"Not too much. They're making us do all these ethics workshops, you know, so it's been hard to get much done. They call it 'professional development,' but it's more like torture—and I think I'm qualified to make that judgment. But it's only supposed to last one more week."
"You show up at ten o'clock at night to tell me that?"
Tony gave half a smile. "No, guess not." He exhaled deeply. "Jethro."
Gibbs's head snapped up.
"I don't like to intrude—"
"Like hell," Gibbs said under his breath.
Tony ducked his head in acknowledgment. "Okay, yeah, but not this kind of intruding." He rubbed the back of his neck for a moment, apparently gathering his thoughts, then let his hands fall flat against the top of the worktable.
"What are you gonna do?
Gibbs blinked at him before refocusing on the shelf in front of him.
"I'm gonna live, DiNozzo." He brushed a thin layer of varnish along the shelf's edge. "Build, read, eat. Got a yard that needs more attention than I've been giving it."
"That's what I mean. Can you…do that?"
Gibbs waited for an explanation.
"I know you aren't going to get the retirement funds you were supposed to get from NCIS. And life's not cheap. Not trying to be presumptuous, but McGee and I were thinking—if you needed the cash, you could always consult for us, because McGee knows somebody who could get that squared away legally…"
A spike of irritation pricks at Gibbs's temper. They've been talking about him at work, yammering on about the old guy who got fired, trying to save the day.
"Aw, get over yourself, Probie," Mike growled in his head, around the same time that Tony trailed off and looked up at him awkwardly, face set in its most serious expression.
"We're just concerned about you."
Gibbs dipped his paintbrush and scraped off the excess varnish on the rim of the can, waiting for the irritation to die down. Which it did, after a few long, smooth brushstrokes. He set the brush down and turned to Tony.
"I appreciate that, DiNozzo. But you do not have to worry about me. Understood?"
Tony shifted uncomfortably. "Boss—"
"Not your boss," Gibbs reminded him. "And you're right. I won't get money from NCIS. But I do have my military pension. My house is paid off. Look around; you think I live an extravagant lifestyle?"
"Of course not." Tony's face lightened incrementally. "Just thought it was my job, you know, to check. And I wanted to."
Tony was a good man—probably a much better one than Gibbs was—and sometimes that fact hit Gibbs in the face and his words got stuck in his throat when he wanted to express how proud he was. He had wondered if any of his agents would drop by this week, asking for advice or acting upset, and not one of them had. It hadn't offended him, but…it had been a very quiet week.
It was good to see Tony. Gibbs had to clear his throat to banish excess emotion before speaking again.
"Things going all right?"
"Yeah. Yeah. Ziva's been quiet. I think Abby's in mourning. McGee's been bringing donuts like twice a week and I was thinking about getting Ducky to hound him about that, 'cause he'll be upset if he gets pudgy again."
"Oh, you know me. I'm peachy." Gibbs raised his eyebrows at his shelf. Tony sighed and lifted a shoulder. "It's been a long week. But it'll get better, I think. I hope."
"It's Friday. I thought you all might go out tonight."
"Palmer suggested that, but…eh. Nobody was really in the mood. I went home, watched a comedy. I think Ziva went to the gym."
They were silent for a minute, listening to the sweep of bristles against wood.
"I guess I should get going," Tony said without moving to get up.
Gibbs spent a moment trying to make sense of his own thoughts.
"Tony." Tony looked over at him. "You're gonna need to be there for the others. It's part of the job."
Now Tony's irritation was piqued. "What?"
"For all of them, not just for Ziva."
A wounded look clouded Tony's face. "Since when have I ever let any of you down?"
Gibbs considered. "You haven't."
The other man made a frustrated gesture. "Then—"
"I know you know that. And I know you can handle it." He sighed. "Hell, DiNozzo, I'm sorry."
Tony looked completely alarmed at that response, and Gibbs waited for him to make a crack about the broken rule. But then Tony smoothly rose above the easy comment—he kept doing that lately, and it was disconcerting—and shook his head.
"It's fine. Ziva's not the only person on the team I care about, you know," he said carefully.
"Yeah, I know."
"And I know you care about us all just as much." Gibbs felt Tony's eyes heavy on the side of his head. "So I can understand how you'd want to make sure everybody's gonna be taken care of."
"Nobody could blame you for feeling a little nervous handing over your team. After all…twelve years with me, nine with McGee, eight with Ziva. Long time." He spread his hands and tilted his head knowingly.
Gibbs swiped out an unruly bubble of varnish and frowned at Tony. "You been taking lessons on psychoanalysis from Duck?"
Tony's face broke into a wide grin. "Nah. Leading people on in interrogation is something I learned from you."
Gibbs was about to tell Tony that he was right—he couldn't help being a little uncomfortable with the way his team had so suddenly switched hands, and the advice was less for Tony's benefit than it was for Gibbs's own peace of mind—but suddenly the door at the top of the stairs opened and both men craned their necks and squinted at the figure descending the staircase.
"I know it's late," Ziva said. She lifted slightly the wrapped dish balanced on her right hand before setting it down on the counter beside the bourbon. "I brought cookies."
A sudden image of Ziva trying to decide what would be the best excuse to visit her ex-boss at 10:30 on a Friday night and inexplicably choosing cookies floated into Gibbs's mind, and he felt the corners of his mouth and eyes tug upwards and crinkle in mirth.
DiNozzo wandered over to the counter and snuck a hand under the dishtowel that covered the plate, withdrawing a large, soft sugar cookie. He bit into it and chewed speculatively, never quite meeting Ziva's eyes.
"Fresh-baked cookies, huh? I thought you were going to the gym."
"I did. Then I went home and decided to do some baking."
Gibbs balanced the brush across the top of the can and wiped his hands on his thighs. A moment later he was biting into a cookie with a grunt of appreciation. Ziva really was quite a good cook. He wondered vaguely if she'd be interested in his mother's recipe for apple pie.
He realized abruptly that the only sound in the room was that of his own chewing, and he looked between Tony and Ziva to gauge their level of tension.
He'd seen worse. This time it was less anger and more…awkwardness? Guilt? Frustration over feelings that were entirely too close to the surface to be ignored? There didn't seem to have been much progression between them in the past week. Before that…well. He was ashamed to admit that in the days before that, he'd been too absorbed in his own problems to pay much attention to his agents' interactions.
"So why the treats?" he asked.
"Can a woman not decide to bring an old friend some baked goods? On a whim?"
"No," Tony said. "Martha Stewart, Betty Crocker, sure. But with you I expect an ulterior motive."
"Of course you do," muttered Ziva. To Gibbs she raised her voice: "I just wanted to check in."
Tony's mouth twisted. "Check in or check up?"
Ziva cast Tony an irritated glance but ignored the intense gaze he leveled on her. And Gibbs suddenly got it—Tony was, on some level, concerned that she'd come visiting to vent about the myriad ways in which his leadership was not as effective as Gibbs's. At the very least, he was slightly jealous over the idea that she might have come to talk her many troubles and unhappinesses over with an older, wiser man.
The irony of it was that Gibbs suspected Ziva had actually made the trip for much the same reason Tony had: to make sure he wasn't subsisting on Ramen and sawdust. And maybe a little because she missed him. He'd flatter himself that much.
"Good to see you, either way." He squeezed her shoulder briefly and she smiled. "Both of you," he clarified after catching Tony's eye. He snagged another cookie. "These are good, Ziver."
"My grandmother's recipe."
"You should try my grandmother's recipe for zuccotto sometime," Tony told her.
She frowned. "You told me you would give me that recipe back in November, and you never did."
"Oh. My bad."
Gibbs didn't care much for this awkward mixture of old-style normalcy and new-style tension between them. Either go all-in or stay out, that was what he advocated.
"He can get it to you tomorrow," he said, nodding at Tony. "And after that, I have a pie recipe you should try."
Ziva's face clearly showed that she wasn't sure how she had morphed from a federal agent bringing her friend cookies to the office bakesale lady and wasn't too pleased about the change.
"You two do realize men can bake?"
"Just in case you need another reason to visit," he spoke over the end of her sentence.
She looked a little embarrassed.
"Or you can just come over whenever you wanna talk. No excuses necessary." He thought for a minute. "Although if bribing me with pie makes you more comfortable…" he shrugged and walked, grinning, back to his worktable.
"Um," she said eventually. "You are right. The cookies were a pretense. I wanted to…just to say hello."
Tony raised his eyebrows.
"And to make sure you were getting along all right."
"You two should've coordinated," Gibbs said after a long moment. "Since you both came for exactly the same reason."
The look Ziva sneaked at Tony leaked a little more blatant affection than she probably meant it to. Tony, on the other hand, looked like this idea was food for serious thought and kept his eyes trained on a tin of paint thinner while he mulled it over.
"And to answer that question: I'm okay. Although I would like to go to bed at some point tonight."
Both agents looked a little guilty at the pointedness of his tone, and began the typical shuffle-around-and-talk-at-once pre-departure dance.
"Hey!" They froze, eyes trained on his face. He looked squarely at each of them, and internally he sighed once more.
"You gotta be straight with them," said the Mike Franks who lived in his mind. "Ain't fair to start them off without all the right advantages and opportunities, is it? And aren't you the least bit curious to see what'll happen?"
"The two of you need to talk," he said quietly. "Don't start this off with any more confusion than you've already got."
He didn't bother defining "this," and could tell they noticed, because they glanced at each other like they weren't sure if he meant this the restructuring of the team or this the palpable thing between them. They didn't ask, though; just said their goodbyes and climbed the stairs.
Tony and Ziva were apparently unaware of the acoustics of Gibbs's house. It was difficult to hear most of what went on upstairs from the basement, but if you stood directly in front of the front door, the sounds that filtered into the basement were muffled but audible. Painting did not create much white noise, and the neighborhood was even quieter than usual, so Gibbs could hear Tony and Ziva when they decided to take his advice to heart immediately upon shutting his front door. Even his good ears couldn't catch the actual words, but the intonation of their voices drifted through the basement clearly enough that he didn't have to strain to gather some of their meaning. He found a mostly-clean coffee mug and poured himself some bourbon.
Tony raised his voice, then, and Gibbs gravitated towards the front of the basement as Tony's words grew more distinct.
"Are you going to be able to do that? Because I've tried damn hard to give you every opportunity!"
There was a pause. Gibbs visualized Tony running a frustrated hand through his hair.
"God, Ziva, in Berlin we were just getting somewhere!"
There was another short pause. Then Ziva's voice, sounding weary. "Tony—"
He interrupted her. "And yet we get home, and you're showing up to work with bruised knuckles and selling your car and going after murderers and—you know, you don't have to come to your boss, and you don't have to come to your partner, but you could've come to your friend."
A long pause this time, and then Tony spoke again, and although his voice dropped so Gibbs couldn't quite make out his words, the tone used ached.
There was an odd noise from Ziva that didn't quite manage to be a laugh, and then she raised her own voice. "Yes! You have been there! You have always been there, and most of the time I have not deserved it! I know that!" Her voice lowered, just slightly, and Gibbs strained to make out her next words. "You're not just a rock, you're a—an entire boulder, Tony. I just—it's all been so much, and I've been so—" Gibbs could imagine the way her search for the right word was punctuated by a frustrated hand gesture, "preoccupied, and—"
"I know! I've understood that, it's—Ziva—"
Gibbs decided he didn't want to hear this.
It was one thing to know everything going on with his team through a combination of observation and intuition, but it was another to blatantly eavesdrop on them—even if they were standing at his door, making his neighbor's dog bark and thus probably inadvertently waking all the babies on the street.
He was not their boss any longer. He had no claim on them beyond love.
He pressed play on his recovered tape player, and tinny Mexican cantina music filled the space. For good measure, he grabbed a block of wood and some sandpaper and began to add some white noise.
He had to flip the tape twice before he heard the low rumble of their cars leaving.
It took Abby another week.
"I've been working on your case," she said, peeking into his fridge and frowning.
"Nothing to work on," he reminded her. "Abs, it's over."
"It's not over until you give up. And you may give up," she said, voice rising, "but I will never give up."
His first mistake was trying to reason with her. "I'm an old man. Would've had to retire sooner or later," was not what she wanted to hear.
"No." She pointed a finger at him. "It would be one thing if you retired like a normal person. Well, not exactly a normal person, because you're Gibbs, but if you gave us a few months' notice and let me throw you a party and went out with a bang! And I mean the fireworks-in-the-park type of bang, not the gunfire kind. Leaving in disgrace? Not okay. He attacked you, Gibbs! He attacked all of us! He attacked our relationships and our characters and everything we've worked for and…and cherished all these years—" she took a deep breath and looked at him with hurt eyes "—and I don't understand why you're just taking it."
He tried to find an answer for her. He really did. But in the end, he just put all his weariness into one long, solemn look.
The anger drained slowly from her expression and was replaced by a confusing mix of emotions.
"Excuse me," she said thickly after a moment, tearing her eyes from his. "I have to go do something…somewhere…outside."
The "something" was sitting, and the "somewhere outside" was his front steps. He washed the plate he'd used for lunch and took his time drying it. Then he walked out the door and eased down beside her. The first fireflies of the night winked over the flower beds he'd weeded that morning.
"You know," he began slowly, "my grandpa used to sit on his front porch every evening and flick the wood shavings from his whittling at all the kids who passed by." He stretched out his legs. "It was all in fun, of course. Kids would laugh, throw spitballs sometimes. I asked him once why he thought it was so funny, and he told me, 'Leroy, when you're used to all the stones life throws at you, a little sawdust and paper? 's just a game. Might just as well have a little fun.' Always thought that was an interesting way to look at it."
He looked at Abby from the corner of his eye, watching as she bit her lip and then grinned a little and cut her eyes at him.
"Wow. You know, my grandma used to say 'Sugar, I love you, but I'm a-gonna smack you if you don't hush up and go to sleep.' It's not quite as deep as yours, but she said it a lot."
Gibbs chuckled, and Abby took a deep breath, exhaled, and slumped against his arm.
"I can't believe this happened."
"It was a stone," he shrugged. "But everything now's just sawdust and paper."
"You can say that, Gibbs, but it's not true. I'm serious. How did this happen?"
After a long silence, she voiced what was really bothering her. "Why couldn't I do anything?"
"When I was on the stand…they acted like what I said—what all of us said—didn't even matter."
"You've been in court before, Abs. You know how lawyers work."
"It's different this time."
She plucked at the hem of her skirt.
"I'm sorry," she said eventually. "I'm just still trying to make sense of all this."
Injustice was always harder for Abby than for the others. She processed self-doubt in a different way, as well, and being faced with both injustice and self-doubt unraveled her completely. It made him feel slightly strange to realize she had knitted herself back together this time with no help from him—or, judging from what Tony had said last week, anyone else.
They watched a child on a tricycle pedal laboriously down the twilight-lit road, trailed by a baseball-capped father, and Gibbs decided he could risk prying just a little. "How's the team doing?"
She threw him an understanding look.
"Really well. Everybody's following Tony's lead, and Tony's doing a great job. Like, he did a good job the first time you left, but he's really grown into it since then."
Gibbs nodded, satisfied.
"I think there's something going on between him and Ziva."
"McGee said something about it yesterday, but I noticed it myself. They're being really…smiley."
"I know, it's great! A little disconcerting, because I haven't been feeling really smiley lately. But it's nice to see Ziva smiling again."
He couldn't argue with that.
Later, she sighed when she stood to leave. "I'm still not over it," she informed him. "But I'm trying."
He walked her the ten steps to her car.
"Would it make you feel better if I let you throw me that retirement party?"
She pursed her lips and considered it. "A little."
The kiss he pressed to her temple brightened her face. "Really?"
"Hey, I didn't say anything."
"Uh-huh. So, does a week from tomorrow work for you?"
That was a convenient thing about forced retirement. Without work, Gibbs never had plans.
They made a deal: Abby would skip festooning his house with streamers if he agreed to play birthday boy and promised to refrain from rolling his eyes when instructed to blow out the candles on the cake she brought—one candle for each year of his NCIS service.
It was cheesy, and the twenty-two brightly-colored candles made him feel like some sort of kid. But if blowing out candles represented some sort of closure for Abby, he could manage it.
The evening was clear and warm, and he poked around in his flower beds as he waited for his guests.
"They look nice," McGee called, climbing out of his car, half an hour early.
McGee came to stand next to where Gibbs crouched. Gibbs pinched off the dead head of one flower and squinted up at the confused look on McGee's face.
"That's not a trick question, Tim. You like the flowers?"
"Um, yeah. They're nice."
"Wanna give me a hand?"
McGee looked at the spotless flower bed—Gibbs found himself with a lot of time to pull weeds these days—and seemed to decide against pointing out that Gibbs's hands seemed more than adequate to care for one well-maintained group of plants. He squatted down slowly. "Sure."
"Get the shriveled-looking ones and snap 'em off. And if you see a caterpillar, give it a good flick."
McGee plucked at a few brownish leaves, and Gibbs looked at him sidelong. The man looked tired. There was a wrinkle across his forehead that Gibbs didn't remember.
"How you been doing, McGee?"
McGee smiled. "I was just going to ask you that."
"Haven't seen much of you."
McGee had, in fact, been the only one to not show up in the past few weeks. Once the ice was broken, Abby had begun popping in regularly, bringing chatter and gossip and the reminder that he wasn't allowed to slink out of her life that easily.
Tony stopped in every few days. Gibbs wasn't sure if that was more for Tony's benefit—Tony never said so, but Gibbs could tell it brought him relief to hear his old boss tell him he was doing well—or simply because Tony was worried that Gibbs might feel lonely or abandoned. Hell, maybe a little of it was just that now that they weren't required to spend sixty hours a week together, they could admit to enjoying each other's companionship.
Ziva had come to get the recipe for his mother's pie, and then again to sit at his table and eat a piece of it with him. She was good company, Ziva was. She didn't force the conversation when they both felt like being quiet.
Ducky had made it clear that Gibbs was not allowed to walk away from their friendship like he had before, and had insisted that Gibbs come to supper at his apartment periodically. And Jimmy had called on Friday and made a dozen faulty—and funny—starts at conversation before asking if Gibbs would feel too terribly overshadowed if Jimmy were to use his party to make an announcement and was he sure and okay thank you sir I mean Gibbs.
Even Vance had invited him to lunch at a sports bar on Wednesday. They'd talked almost entirely about baseball, but it had been a nice outing anyway.
Gibbs wasn't sure if his friends would be able to keep up this level of social interaction forever, but it was pretty nice for the time being.
But from McGee, he hadn't heard a peep.
"Sorry about that, Boss."
"Not your boss."
"Sorry about that, too."
Gibbs gave McGee a speculative look. "So, what's up?"
"Nothing," McGee said. A ladybug crawled onto the back of his hand and he examined it for too long a moment.
"It's been a really long month. We're doing fine," he hastened to assure Gibbs. "The cases are getting solved and Ziva and Abby are getting back to normal and Tony's not even being that irritating about being the boss."
"So what's the catch?"
McGee shook off the ladybug. "There's not one. It's just still tough to get used to, and nobody wants to offend anybody else by acting like it's weird."
Gibbs supposed he could understand that. McGee's spot on the team did seem challenging. He was close to Abby, and Abby had been difficult lately. He'd gotten closer to Ziva in the past few months, and Ziva had also been difficult. He was Tony's Senior Field Agent now, in charge of supporting his friend through the transition, which must have been arduous at times. And Gibbs suspected that what Abby had termed Tony and Ziva's "smileyness" might have been an additional challenge that McGee had not anticipated.
On top of that, Gibbs remembered that the prosecutors had been unexpectedly hard on McGee during the trial on account of his hacking skills, and it wouldn't surprise Gibbs to find that McGee was still upset over the entire debacle. And—
"How's your dad?"
The answer was a long time coming. "Not doing well. The cancer's progressing faster than expected."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
McGee sucked in a deep breath and suddenly his words spilled out in a rush.
"My sister keeps calling. She just got engaged, and now she has to ask me to be the one to walk her down the aisle. She cries every time she mentions it." He met Gibbs's eyes briefly. "It's not exactly one of my areas of expertise, you know? What am I supposed to say to her?"
"I know that. I just mean—god, I'm no good at this."
"Tim," Gibbs started. Then he had to sit back on his heels and think for a moment. "Family's always gonna be hard. Friends are hard. Work is hard. Give yourself a break, and do the best you can. That's all you can expect from yourself."
"Um, okay," McGee said eventually. "Thanks."
"You're welcome here anytime." McGee nodded. "I mean that."
"McGee!" Abby strolled over. "I didn't see you pull up! Did you know there's a ladybug on your ear?"
Ducky and Jimmy arrived soon after, and Tony and Ziva were last. They showed up together, Tony driving her Camaro and grinning the satisfied smile of a teenage boy who knows he's got both a hot car and a hot date. The fact that the car wasn't his and the date was arguing with him about the arbitrary nature of speed limits didn't seem to dampen his mood.
Jimmy's excitement burbled up and overflowed the second Tony shut the door behind him.
"Guys! If I could get your attention! Your attention, please!"
He beamed around at them when they all turned his way.
"I wish Breena could be here, too, but she said I could tell—we're having a baby!"
For a minute, Jimmy bounced nervously on his toes as everyone stared, open-mouthed. It felt strange to receive news that was so unambiguously positive after a month of having to wrangle every piece of information into something that could be accepted, but rarely enjoyed. It was actually difficult to process. He could almost feel it sitting on his skin for a few heartbeats before it sunk in.
Then the dam burst, and everyone began talking and offering congratulations at once.
When Gibbs had taken his turn shaking Jimmy's hand and left the young man to Abby's excited questions and the others' huge smiles, he sought out Ducky, who had been the first to hug Jimmy and the first to retreat to the kitchen.
"Ah, Duck. That's something else, huh?"
"I feel a bit as though I just learned I'll be a grandfather," Ducky said, resting a hand on the doorframe and surveying the group in Gibbs's living room. "Odd, considering my conspicuous lack of offspring. But certainly not unwelcome."
Gibbs stole a finger's worth of icing from the bottom of Abby's cake and smoothed the track he made over with a spoon.
Ducky watched Jimmy show Ziva the ultrasound image he pulled up on his phone. "It's, um…there," they could hear Jimmy say. "She got the ultrasound to confirm the due date, but at twelve weeks it's kinda tricky to see everything…" Ziva gasped and cooed, and Tony leaned over to get a closer look.
"I expect you might know the feeling someday," Ducky remarked.
Gibbs pulled from the fridge the pasta salad Abby had made earlier and forgotten in her excitement over baby Palmer. "Nothing's impossible. Hey, give me a hand."
It wasn't a perfect evening. McGee was still too quiet, and Gibbs could hear the insecurity in at least two of Tony's weaker jokes. Ziva had to be startled out of a few pensive moments and cajoled by Ducky into letting go of a minor spat with Tony, and Abby's festive mood bordered on manic at times. Ducky's hand shook slightly when he lit the candles on the cake.
Jimmy made at least half a dozen awkward comments, of course, but that didn't register on the scale of Not Quite Normal.
But all-in-all, it wasn't so bad.
And after cake, gathered in the rapidly darkening yard as Abby traced shapes and numbers in the air with sparklers and the others called out their guesses of what her pictures represented, Gibbs allowed himself the thought that—given time, of course, and adjusted according to the changing landscape of emotions and relationships—this might, just maybe, be good.
"It's a skull!" cried Jimmy.
"Skull-and-crossbones—uh, a pirate ship?"
Ziva's interest was piqued. "A pirate?"
"Not everything is pirates, you guys!"
"A cranium with a hairline fracture."
Ducky chuckled. "I believe you may need to draw it again, my dear."
"But I'd have to light another—"
"It's the logo for Cranium Slog!" McGee suddenly called.
Abby cheered. "Ding-ding-ding! And the point goes to McGee, for being the only one who keeps up with my favorite bands!"
Something Tony muttered set off a genuine peal of laughter from Ziva, and Gibbs had to smile at the pleased expression on DiNozzo's face before Jimmy appeared out of nowhere and jolted it off by smacking the back of Tony's neck.
"Mosquito," he explained sheepishly, displaying a smear on his palm.
Ziva caught Gibbs's eye and burst into laughter all over again; Gibbs found himself grinning a wide, easy grin for the first time in a while.
"Cygnus is quite clear tonight," Ducky murmured, looking heavenwards. The last dregs of daylight had crept out of the sky during Abby's game, and the stars twinkled against the darkness overhead. He sighed contentedly. "What a lovely evening, Jethro."
"Yeah," said Gibbs. He glanced at the stars, but found their shine lackluster compared to the bright faces that surrounded him.
"Better than you thought, huh, Probie?" Mike whispered in his ear.
He raised his beer to his lips. "Yeah," he repeated. "Ain't half bad."
I seem to be completely incapable of ending stories on a note that's anything other than cheesily, fluffily cheerful. And I am sorry about that, because angst is probably more in line with the actual show right now.
Regardless, I hope you enjoyed!