Even though it was twenty-two hundred, Gibbs was comfortable at his desk. Now that the team was back, they were all trying to settle in. He was spending a lot of time at his desk, watching out for them, but he wouldn't admit it.
Abbs was still in the lab, which had become as much as comfort zone as her coffin. DiNozzo was still at his desk studying reports of cases that had occurred when he'd been afloat, Ziva had brought dinner back with her and was squinting at her computer screen and McGee was typing away, his expression serious.
Only Ducky and Palmer had left at a reasonable hour. Palmer had a night class and Ducky's mother was in failing health. Gibbs ran a hand over the back of his neck, pulling in a deep breath. There was no way he'd leave before his agents did and he was getting concerned about the way they were all settling back in.
DiNozzo's eyes were shadowed and Gibbs noticed his hand shaking sometimes. Ziva seemed hollow, as if the very effort of pretending to be okay after her time back with Mossad was wearing on her. And McGee's head still snapped around whenever anyone said "Boss", his eyes lighting up whenever Vance was near. The team was back together but they weren't the same.
Rationally, Gibbs knew it would take time for the team to gel, but he hadn't expected that he'd be so damned tired. Their separation had worn on him; he couldn't allow himself to become as close with them as he had been. It had been far too easy for Vance to manipulate the situation. And Gibbs had no doubts that Vance had used his team's loyalty. The mole and Langer's deception had only been a piece of the puzzle.
Days like today, Gibbs wondered if he wasn't getting too old for all of this. He looked up wearily as a shadow loomed over his desk suddenly, feeling every one of his forty-eight years.
Abby knew she should be happy. She really should. All of the team, all of her family, was home. McGee was back at his desk instead of running around as the boss of Cyber Crimes. Tony was finally on land and back at NCIS. And Ziva had returned from Israel, safe and moody for reasons she hadn't told Abby about yet.
But something wasn't right. They were all home and back where they were supposed to be — according to Abby — but the bond had been altered, ripped apart and not fixed yet. And the worst part was that Gibbs had separated himself from the rest, especially from her. And she couldn't figure out why.
Waiting down in her lab for something to change, Abby had decided she was going to do something to fix it, to reunite her family. She charged towards the elevator and then made her way to the squad room. Rushing to Gibbs' desk, she said hey to the others as they sat at their desks and stopped in front of Gibbs.
She smiled at him, her pigtails swinging. "Hey, Gibbs!"
"Abby," he said, watching her, wishing he had her energy or spirit. "What's keeping you here so late?" he asked quietly, not reprimanding her, but also staying mildly calm and distant. His stomach let out a quiet growl, but he tried to ignore it, sighing and running a hand over his desk, wiping off an already clean surface.
"You." She answered him simply, straight and to the point, as was her way, but still just a bit vague. "All of you, actually," she added, looking around the bullpen and involving the whole group. "Ever since you guys got split up and then came back together, you all have been acting strange. Like you aren't the same people as when you left. Like you aren't a family. And I know different. You, well, all of us actually, are closer than some families and most of us are closer to each other than our own families. But ever since you guys came home, it's like you were replaced with replicas. Poor, cheap, emotionless replicas. You especially, Gibbs."
Abby looked at him then, knowing that he had been pushing them away for reasons she couldn't even guess. Putting her hand on his desk, she leaned towards him. "I want my family back. I want Ziva and Tony teasing and play fighting and finding ways of irritating each other. I want Tim acting like a complete computer geek and newbie even though he's been here for years, because Tony will make up some weird version of his last name or call him Probie. I want Ducky to come up here and tell long stories that we all have heard a million times, but still listen to anyway because it's Ducky. And I want you, Gibbs, to laugh again, to smile every once in a while. I want you to growl when your team gets a bit out of hand, even though you know you love hearing them. You guys are killing me with your silent stares and your empty conversations. I want you back. I want my family back, Gibbs."
Gibbs just looked at her for a long moment, astounded at her audacity, a little touched by how protective she was. "Abbs..." he started in a warning tone. Next thing Tony'd start blathering about some movie. He had to get out of here before he made things worse.
"Well, I want coffee," he said, standing and striding quickly to the elevator, kissing Abby on the cheek as he passed. He couldn't let them see how emotionally involved he was.
Tony blinked a few times and then got up, coming around to give Abby a hug. "Not trying to be pod Tony, Abby," he said, a bit saddened by the way Gibbs had just left. "It's like he's given up on us," Tony said quietly.
Abby watched Gibbs walk around her, stunned into silence at his dismissal of her. As the elevator doors slid closed, she was only vaguely aware of Tony gathering her up in his arms. On the edges of her hearing, she could tell that Ziva and Tim had gotten up and were coming towards her. Her eyes filled with tears she didn't even try to flick away.
Laying her head on Tony's shoulder, she pulled Ziva in closer before she felt Tim's arms wrap around her from behind. "Why is he being so cold, Tony? What happened that changed him so drastically? He's never been that ... that ... mean." She had no better words for it, for his behavior. It was like he was deliberately trying to push them out of his life.
Hating to see her friend in pain, Ziva brushed her hand over Abby's hair. "I do not believe he was trying to be mean, Abby. I think there is much more going on than we realize. When he is ready, Gibbs will tell us."
Looking Ziva in the eyes, Abby asked, "How can you be so sure? I've never seen him like this."
"He's scared too, Abby," Tony began, though he wasn't sure if he was on or off base here. "He lost the director, then all of us..." Tony paused, looking at McGee, who had filled him in on the basics. "Then one of his team turned out to be a mole and one of the other team members had to shoot him. That's gotta be shaking the Boss up, Abby. Maybe he's just running scared."
Tony sighed into her hair. He'd tried to talk to Gibbs a bit, but he'd gotten nowhere. Neither of them were feelings guys, which made it even harder. "When he was looking for Ari, he got real distant, remember?"
"Yeah, but he hasn't been with me, Tony. He was still ... Gibbs with me. Remember? Remember when Ari shot at me and he came busting in even though the bullets had come flying into my lab and you were shielding me and he ... he was still Gibbs with me. Still protective and caring. Not mean. Never mean with me, Tony."
And that's what scared Abby the most. No matter how bad things got, Gibbs would always turn to her and treat her ... well, special. She couldn't lose Gibbs.
"What has him so scared, Tony?"
"I know he was like that with you back then, Abby. But he's older now and more hardened. With the director dying the way she did..." And the fact that Tony himself was responsible...
"Trusting again. Letting people in. Gibbs isn't like that any more, Abby," Tony added when the others didn't speak.
Worried that Abby might try something drastic, Ziva stepped back and tried think of how to show her that things would go back to normal. "It will work how it always works, Abby. One day at a time, one case at a time. Gibbs will come out of whatever this is. He will be the Gibbs who kisses you on the cheek."
"Who brings you Caf-Pow," Tim offered, following Ziva's train of thought. "He just ... needs some time. He was really close to the director, Abby. And when she died and everyone left ... he was different. You know how different he was. But he'll come back." Confident, he went back to his desk, hopeful that Abby would just ... let it go.
"They're right, Abbs. He just took a hard hit with the director's death and then this thing with Langer betraying the team and NCIS. He'll bounce back. He always does."
"It's different this time, Tony. And I've got to do something about it. I can't let him push us away like that. I just can't." Her course of action would be strange, different, but totally hers. And she may need her friends to help.
"He's the center of us, Tony. It won't work without him," she pleaded, watching Ziva and Tim go back to their desks.
"I know." Abby had hit on what Tony was so worried about. "I'll keep trying to talk to him, Abby. I've tried to talk with him a couple of times. Give me time to work with him..." Tony sighed, tilting her head up and looking into her eyes. "What do you think? Tell me what your plan is, Abbs."
"No, Tony." Determined now on her plan of action, she pushed her hands against Tony's chest and put distance between the two of them. She wouldn't bring the rest in on her flight of fancy, as Gibbs would call it. "No, I don't have a plan." Abby was a terrible liar, but she was stubborn.
Tony arched a brow, knowing she was going to go over to Gibbs' place. "Your funeral," he warned gently. "Gibbs isn't going to want to talk, Abbs. I've been going over there and trying..." He stroked Abby's hair. "Why don't the four of us go out, get a pizza and some beer?" He met Ziva's and then McGee's eyes, giving them an encouraging look.
"He'll talk, Tony. He'll talk to me." Looking over at the other two, she said, "I can't, not when things are like this. But you three go. Please. Have some fun, and damn it, I want the three of you back to your normal selves tomorrow. Got it?" She put on her best Gibbs impression, hoping to at least get a laugh or a smile.
Leaning back in the chair, Ziva promised, "I will be my normal self, Abby. We all will. I suspect even Gibbs will be when you are done with him. But I think I will go home tonight. I have ... a lot to think over." Giving them all a smile, Ziva grabbed her pack and headed out.
"Ziva, wait. Dinner ... on me. Come on, Probie, you're invited too. She's right. We haven't..." Tony shrugged. "A lot has changed. We need to try ... We need to try..."
Tony slipped into the elevator, giving Ziva a penetrating look. "You know it. Something happened to you when we were all apart and I need to know."
Tim gave Abby a hard hug, looking deep into her eyes. They'd given up on being an item a long time ago — he'd always suspected she really had a thing for Gibbs anyhow — but they were closer for all of that. "Bring him back to us, Abbs. It's worse than when he was nice to us."
Giving her one last smile, he followed the others. "Coming, Tony."
Abby watched the elevator close behind her friends and took a deep breath. Walking over to Gibbs' desk, she talked to it like she was talking to its owner. "I'm going to fix this, Gibbs. One way or another." Reaching over, she clicked off his lamp.
Walking up to his home, Abby almost knocked, which just reminded her how much everything had changed. Tilting up her chin, she gathered her courage and walked through the door. Not finding him upstairs, she guessed he was with his boat.
Hearing sounds below her in the basement, she went down the stairs towards them. "Gibbs?"
He'd gotten coffee and retreated home, almost locking the door. Gibbs knew DiNozzo would be by at some point and he didn't want to deal with the looks, the silence that wasn't Tony, wincing as the man took as many hits of bourbon as he did.
But something stopped him from locking up and he'd only been downstairs working on Kelly for twenty minutes when he heard Abby's voice and her platform heels as she clomped down the stairs. "Abbs?" he said, trying like hell to keep his voice remote.
"Hey, Gibbs." Making it to the bottom of the steps unharmed despite her awkwardly high shoes, Abby wrapped her arms around her body, suddenly unsure of what to do. She'd been so determined, so focused on helping him that she hadn't thought of the consequences if he didn't want that help. But she didn't care. Nothing mattered so long as he came back to her.
"How ... how's the Kelly going? When do you think you'll have her seaworthy?"
He winced at the use of his daughter's name, even though he knew Abby was referring to the vessel and not the child. "Working on the cabin," he said, motioning to it. "Should be done in a month or so." He still hadn't worked out if he'd sail her or not. But this one he'd never burn. It meant a hell of a lot to him, built with love rather than revenge or anger.
Nodding, she walked over to the boat, running a hand along the smoothed and varnished side. Turning to him, she tried to start, "Gibbs, I..." but chickened out. Moving along the edge of the boat, she appreciated the smooth layers, the hard work, the dedication to a memory. But would that memory force him to be alone forever?
"You what?" Gibbs asked quietly. He retreated to the workbench and poured himself a bourbon, swirling the jar before he looked up at her. He knew she had a lot to say, and from experience, she'd expand on whatever was on her mind in her own time. And he wouldn't be able to stop her.
He eyed her, cataloguing the saddened look in her eyes, watching her carefully. And waiting.
Taking a deep breath, she almost wished she could down one of his bourbons. But this was not the moment to be drunk. Not for something as important as this.
"Gibbs ... I want to know why you left. Why, when I said all that today about wanting my family back, you made some glib comment about coffee and left. It hurt, Gibbs. You've never rejected me before, not like that. And this wasn't the first time. Since the team's been back, you've pushed yourself away. No one can get near you. What happened, Gibbs? I want ... I need to know. Please," she ended on a whisper, begging him to let her in.
"Didn't reject you, Abbs." This wasn't about Abby, even though she felt it was. "Had to get some space from them," he told her, being as honest as he dared. There was no way he was getting close to his team again. Even though he tried to keep quiet, even as he knew the words were flowing out, he tried to stem them.
"Langer used to spend a couple nights a month down here when he was on my team. Considered him a friend. Then he betrayed NCIS and our country." And something still seemed so wrong about that. Gibbs' gut was still churning. "I had a traitor to my country here in the basement. I trained a traitor. He was a friend."
"But that doesn't mean any of the others will betray you. Or that I will betray you, Gibbs." She closed her eyes as she remembered her reaction to losing Langer to Lee's bullet. Despite him being a traitor, Abby couldn't help being upset at his death. She was losing too many of them. "Langer was good at getting people to trust him, to make them believe what he needed them to. I liked Langer. A lot. And when Lee shot him ... But that doesn't mean I could try and push Tony or Ziva or Tim away now, 'cause there may be some improbable, random chance in a million that they could do the same thing. I would never believe that you would do it. But you can't believe that about me? About your team?"
Walking along the length of the boat, she stopped when she was in front of him. "Please don't push us, push me away, Gibbs."
"Langer was a friend," Gibbs shot back, more emotionally than he'd intended. "Langer was a damned good friend who screwed this agency and the country, Abby!" Gibbs didn't know if he could verbalize what he was wanted to say, but he had to try. She had it all wrong.
"Vance used my affection for the team to get what he wanted. And Ziva and Lee almost died. Got too close, Abbs. Can't get too close to my agents again." And Jenny had died because of their closeness, but Gibbs couldn't admit that to anyone. "Not pushing you away, Abby."
Wincing, she took a step back at his tirade. "Yes, Gibbs. Yes, you have. Do you realize how long it's been since you kissed me on the cheek, other than tonight, or brought me a Caf-Pow or snuck up on me? And don't you know how much your ... coldness is affecting your agents? They don't work with you because you're a cold, unfeeling bastard, Gibbs. They work with you because you're the best, you make them the best, and you care about them."
"And that made my agents weak," Gibbs said quietly. It was a hell of a lot to deal with and he wasn't an emotions guy. Despite how things had gone down and the distance between him and Jenny at the end, he felt responsible for her death. And then the team getting split up, the mole...
"They're agents, Abby. They need a boss, not..." Not what he'd become. "But you're different. You need me..." And I need you, Gibbs added silently. He leaned in, kissing her cheek gently, hugging her briefly but tightly.
"And you need me," she finished for him. As soon as he hugged her, she relaxed against him, some of the weight lifting as she pulled him in tighter. He tried to make it a brief hug, but she wasn't having it. Still holding onto him, she denied part of his statement. "Your agents are not weak, Gibbs. Be their boss, but don't be a jerk while you're doing it. 'Kay?"
"Okay." It was easier to agree rather than argue it. "Who sent you over here? DiNozzo? Or did you come on your own?" He knew tonight was bowling night and she didn't turn away from that very easily. "I'm okay, Abbs. Kelly and I are gonna spend the night together. You have plans, I know your schedule.'
"I came on my own, even though I had plans. You were more important." She wasn't fooled by him, his 'okay' a way to placate her. "I came on my own. They offered, even warned me, but ... it wouldn't have helped, would it?"
Panic had taken a permanent home in her breast, a desperation to see Gibbs happy driving her. His sadness was killing her as slowly and painfully as it was killing his spirit. Not for her relief, but for his heart, Abby had to do all that was necessary to see him happy for once.
"Tony sits here a couple times a week. He wants to talk but..." Gibbs shrugged. He and DiNozzo were not talkers or emotion guys. So Gibbs poured a huge jar of bourbon and Tony downed it, sitting silently and watching him work.
"Don't want to see them," he told her, brutal honesty in his words. "Just need time with my girls." He meant the boat and his memories.
Abby wasn't such a fool to think he meant her in that statement, but more than likely included her with the group he didn't want. Taking a step back, feeling defeat pulling her down, she looked at him with tears in her eyes. "You won't let yourself be happy, will you? You'll always put a barrier up between you and everyone else, won't you?"
He stroked his hand over the wood, calming himself, soothing himself. "As happy as it gets." He didn't remember bouts of happiness since he'd lost his girls. Reaching out, he stroked Abby's hair. "Not you, Abbs. Never you. Make me smile."
You could be so much happier, Gibbs, Abby thought. You deserve to be. You deserve to be loved and to have someone to love. Closing her eyes, she turned into his touch, a part of her wishing she could be the one to make him whole again. But in her heart, she knew there was only one person who could do that. And she'd been dead for years. "Wish I could do more for you, Gibbs. I wish I could take your pain away."
"There was someone who did. Once," he said, turning away as emotion welled up inside him. He stared at the ground, trying to master his emotions, not understanding why it was all exploding from him all of a sudden. "Abby ... you can't fix anything," he told her, being paternal and gentle. "You can't make things right ... Nobody can..."
He was being more honest than he had with anyone in years.
Something shiny caught her eye and a seed of an idea started forming in the complex workings of Abby's mind. Maybe there was a way, she thought. Silently, she slipped the flask into her bag before turning to him. Hearing the plea in his voice, she walked up behind him, wrapping her arms around him. "Maybe I can't, but I won't stop trying, Gibbs. I can't, I won't give up on you. It breaks my heart to see you hurting, you know?"
"Abbs, I'm okay," he promised quietly. "Don't need to worry about me. I'm okay." He shrugged a little disarmingly. "You have plans tonight. Go bowling. I'm gonna..." He stroked the wood. "Gonna spend some time here. Sooner I get her done, sooner I can get her out on the water." And maybe someday he'd invite Abby along for a sail.
"Ha, telling me not to worry about you is like telling you to stop drinking coffee. Not going to happen." Releasing him, she walked around to face him, her eyes welling with unshed tears. "You know if you need me ... Any time..."
"Hey ... what's wrong?" She had a tendency to get emotional, but this was a bit more than he'd expected. "Abbs, come on. It'll be fine and I'll even take ya to lunch tomorrow. Just you and me." Like old times, but not quite, because as much as he was willing to let her in, he still walled himself off.
Wiping the tears away from her eyelashes, she gave him a pathetic smile, but the best she could do right then. "I just ... hate seeing you hurting. And I hate seeing you alone. Not alone in your basement having some private time, but alone alone. Lunch then. Just you and me." Giving him a hard hug, she tried to tell herself that everything would be alright, that despite all odds, happiness would find Leroy Jethro Gibbs one day.
"Don't worry so much. I'm not hurting. I'm okay. I like being alone." Since Shannon, he'd learned to embrace being solitary. "Not a bad thing for me. Now get going and leave me to it."
He gentled his words with a wink.
"Too much alone is not good, Gibbs. Companionship feeds the soul. Remember that. I'll leave you to your boat. She is beautiful and I don't mind your need to be alone with her. But I'm holding you to lunch tomorrow." She smiled at him again, this time weighted less by sadness. Instead, the sadness was replaced by a kernel of determination.
"Lunch. Don't pick up a Caf-Pow in the morning. I'll bring you one." It was his way of thanking her without saying the words.
"Thanks, Gibbs." Going up on her toes, she kissed him on the cheek, their own special gesture.
Sensing that she needed a little more, he signed that she was the greatest and then turned back to his workbench, knowing she could find her way out.
She watched him for a moment more, observing how he moved, the movements minimized for maximum efficiency. Still a Marine, even when he was trying to escape.
As silently as she could, she left his basement, his sanctuary, and headed outside to her car. Taking the flask out of her bag, she looked at it as it shone in the moonlight. "Whatever I can do, I'll find you happiness, Gibbs. You're breaking my heart."
Deciding she couldn't sleep and she really didn't want to bowl, Abby headed to the Navy Yard. She had some research and experimenting to do.
Gibbs sighed as she left, knowing he'd revealed far too much. He reached for his flask, growing concerned and even a little nervous when he realized he couldn't find it. He spent three hours tearing the basement apart, finally drinking a strong measure of bourbon from the bottle and collapsing into bed.