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Chapter 1

If Tim McGee were a different sort of man, he’d be getting sloshed about now in whatever hole-in-the-wall pub was closest to the Yard. But since he’s just plain old Tim McGee, he’s taken a table at the upstairs café of a gallery he patronizes as Thom E. Gemcity. The Fold’s a local hotspot for college kids with a penchant for both organized and spontaneous open mic sessions, and even when their offerings are just plain awful, Tim enjoys listening to them, often finds himself inspired by their works and their bravery for just putting it out there.

Tonight he’s not here for his Muse’s fancy, though. Tonight Tim’s here to try to forget because, you see, it’s not like him at all, but Tim honestly finds himself fighting to shrug off the growing dislike he feels for EJ Barrett.

Tim sips his caramel cappuccino and tries to focus only on the undergrads’ attempts at beat poetry behind him. They must be working on a unit, he imagines as he considers the similarity of their works.

It’s no good though: The quiet rhythms making their way to his ears can’t quite drum out today’s revelations. It was bad enough when Agent Barrett took over Balboa’s old area right beside them. The way she butted heads with Gibbs knocked the whole team’s rhythm off, and Tim’s been feeling those echoes for weeks. Now, though, to find out she’s sleeping with Tony… Tim sighs.

Tony’s never been shy on sharing information about his relationships, sometimes to the point of making Tim blush, and while McGee hasn’t physically blushed in years over Tony’s exploits, Tim’ll still often feel like he’s listening to things he has no right to hear. He’s always a little embarrassed for the women whose secrets Tony shares so readily.

Regardless of the unasked for insight Tony’s always offered into his personal life, Tim had honestly thought of Tony as his best friend, but Tony obviously doesn’t feel the same if he doesn’t want to talk about such an important relationship with Tim. Even beyond their friendship though, Tim is Tony’s teammate and the older man’s relationship with Agent Barrett is already affecting their own team’s dynamic.

And then there’s Abby and her new friendship—Tim hopes—or whatever it is with Barrett’s teammate Agent Cade. Photographic memory. Tim shakes his head. Abby’s always wanted to surround herself with people who could keep up with her. Tim’s just starting to realize that he never could. He may have smarts and he may have education, but there’s always been something about him that Abby’s found lacking. Tim’s tried so hard over the years to figure out what that something was, tried his best to remedy the problem, but then today, seeing Abby with Agent Cade, even as Tim felt that old jealousy rear its head, the feeling that stuck with him the most was just exhaustion. Tim just felt so tired—tired of trying to find that something inside himself that always makes Abby walk away from him in the end.

The more he searches himself tonight though, the more Tim comes to understand that Tony’s enforced distance from him hurts more than Abby’s does. It’s honestly the only bright side to this day because, as Tim reasons, if he’s more upset that Tony and he aren’t as close as he thought than Tim is that Abby’s moving further away from him—again—then maybe he’s finally starting to put this whole thing with Abby behind him. Maybe Tim’ll finally get over her this time.

It’s a very tiny silver lining, but Tim’s holding onto it pretty tightly.

Tim takes a deep breath and holds it, runs his fingers through his hair as he tries to bring himself back around to this moment he’s in. He’s pretty sure the effort’s useless. He lets every bit of that breath out heavily and shakes his head. He feels nothing but drained.

“That’s some tough criticism for some lowly undergrads,” an amused alto tells him from his left.

Tim’s head jerks in the direction of the voice and over to the redhead he’d noticed at the table next to him earlier as she offers him a bit of a smirk.

“Oh, no, I,” he automatically sets to correct his perceived impoliteness, but the woman, who must be around Tony’s age, just grins all the wider. Tim chuffs and ducks his head, can’t help but grin back at her pretty smile. Without conscious thought, his eyes roam down her body, noting the curves, and—wow—the legs in that skirt. He blinks, recognizes his rudeness at once, but before he can apologize, she speaks again.

“You look as though your day’s been about as bad as mine,” she observes.

He lifts his gaze back up to hers, “I hope not,” he says. “Beautiful woman like you shouldn’t have to have days like this,” and the words just pop out of his mouth, and Tim literally cringes, noting how very Tony-like his phrasing is when Tim’d been nothing but sincere.

She tilts her head at him, studying his features. “I don’t know,” she returns wryly. “I think beautiful women, like me,” she emphasizes, a growing glint in her eye, “get bad days just like everybody else.” And then she uncrosses and recrosses her legs, angling her body towards him.

Tim’s eyes note the invitation at once, and the pass is all the more obvious to him for its rarity. He licks his lips, but his mind is totally blank. “Buy you a cup of coffee?” he blurts.

His heart sinks when she shakes her head. “Got one already,” she points to her mug on the table, “but you can join me,” she lifts a brow.

The grin goes wild across Tim’s face as he takes the chair across from her at the small table. “Thanks,” he offers her his hand. “Tim McGee.”

“Lila Johnson,” she returns the gesture, seeming both pleased and amused at the exchange.

“Lila,” he repeats because it’s the best way to remember somebody’s name after they introduce themselves. “It’s good to meet you.”

“You, too, Tim,” she comes back warmly and every inch of her face claims sincerity in the phrase. “So tell me,” Lila begins anew, “why are you having a bad day?”

Tim shakes his head, lips curling all over again at the twinkle in her eyes, which is gloriously straightforward to him. It feels so good for someone to be upfront with him today. “You know, I don’t really remember right now.”

She purses her lips, but her smile goes wider anyway. “What a coincidence,” she says, “me neither.”

And by the end of the night, he knows Lila’s a history professor at Waverly who enjoys ballet, hates TV, and takes every opportunity she has to travel. The thing that stays with him the most in the week that follows, though, is the way she runs her nails down his back when she comes.

 

McGee wears a turtleneck to work the next day to hide the hickey low on his neck. He gets away with it because it may be April, but there’s still a little bite to the air. Moreover, he’s not exactly known for one night stands, and the whole team knows he’s not seeing anyone after his most recent disaster with Maxine.

It makes it easier to hold Lila a secret inside him through the day because most of what they shared occurred between the sheets, and Tim’s never been one to talk about such intimacies with anyone, preferring to respect his lovers’ privacy the way he’d want his own intimate moments respected. Regardless, Tim knows he normally would have at least told the team that he’d met someone, that he thought maybe it could go somewhere, even though he frankly doesn’t know if Lila will use the card he’d left on her pillow when he’d kissed her goodbye that morning. He hopes she will, but Tim doesn’t speak a word of any of it to his teammates.

He likes the idea that his co-workers don’t know something that important and fantastic happened to him. He likes the balance it gives back to their relationships.

And when Lila calls him again that night and bids him over just as he’s leaving the MCRT cubicle, he doesn’t let his voice change in the slightest though he’s unbelievably ecstatic at the invitation.

He spends every night that week in her bed, and then the whole weekend. It tapers off a bit afterwards as they mutually and gradually back off a relationship that mostly exists between the covers and let their lives return to normal. Three months in, they’re down to meeting maybe once a week when she calls him on a Thursday afternoon. The conversation spikes a feeling of concern in him right away because while she’s often talked to him when he’s working, she never intentionally phones during normal business hours.

In retrospect, he wonders if maybe a part of him knew what she was going to tell him when she asked him to come over that evening no matter how late it was when he got off work because there’s a pitch of excitement that starts in his blood at her tone that doesn’t calm for the rest of the day. While most of the feeling might be attributed to nerves, there’s a portion that he can only ascribe to anticipation. It carries him to her doorstep that night and stays with him through the words pregnant and yours and I’m keeping it.

Before they slip between her sheets that night, she decides she’s keeping him, too, and Tim’s never felt more satisfied with his life as he does in that moment when they start making plans for the future together.

 

About six months later…

“Ahh, it’s a beautiful day!” Tony exclaims as he bounces into MCRT.

Ziva smirks when she glances up at his announcement. “It is storming out,” her eyes flicker to the window.

“Yes, but it’s a replenishing storm,” Tony angles his palm upward as if it can grasp the sky in all it’s replenishing-ness.

“This would not have anything to do with the fact that Agent Barrett and her team caught the first flight back to Spain this morning, would it?” Ziva raises a brow, but the glint in her eye tells Tony she fervently shares the sentiment.

“Oh, was that today?” Tony casually shrugs his pack down to rest beside his desk. “I’d completely forgotten.”

Ziva chuckles in that sweet, low rumbling laugh she has that sometimes makes Tony lift his chin, sometimes makes him laugh with her, but always gets him to react. Today, he winks at her and offers a grin.

And Tony settles behind his desk, feeling more at ease with the world than he has in ten months—ever since EJ arrived. He doesn’t know what it was about the woman that made him doubt Gibbs’ law back in March, but he knows for certain now that he will never question el Jeffe again.

Probably the only person who’s actually sad today is Abby. She’s probably already got a picture of Agent Cade hanging in her lab starting the count up of how many days he’s been gone—and wow!—Tony seriously hopes the number just keeps getting higher, because although Simon wasn’t too bad a guy, it’ll be nice to have the team finally return to normal.

Tony glances over to see Tim’s coffee still steaming on his desk, his pack lingering at the far side of his workstation. “Betcha twenty bucks Tim spends all day today in the lab,” he smirks at Ziva.

“I will take that bet, Tony,” Ziva leans back in her chair, twisting her pencil between her fingers thoughtfully. “McGee has rarely been down to see Abby at all in recent months. I do not believe he feels the same attachment to her he once did.”

“Exactly, Ziva!” Tony asserts. “Tim’s been avoiding her the entire time she was dating Mensa Man. It was too much for him to see that glow around her when she was all bow chicka wow wow with somebody else! No,” he shakes his head, “mark my words, Tim’s gonna take this opportunity and run with it,” Tony declares because one of the things that will stay certain around NCIS is that Tim McGee will always have it bad for Abby Scuito. Although, Tony squints as he considers, truthfully, Probie has been surprising un-sullen about Abby’s whole thing with Agent Cade.

“Ha!” Ziva jumps to her feet and points to him as she closes the distance to his desk. “You have seen it, too!” she tilts her chin. “McGee is not nearly as enamored of Abby now as he has been in the past. Admit it!”

Tony lifts his chin and scans Ziva’s posture. “I admit no such thing,” the words come out rapidly.

“Hmmm,” she chuckles again, and this time, she gets him to crinkle his nose and bite at the air in her direction.

“Good morning,” Tim offers cheerfully as he rounds the corner from the direction of the back elevator—which he might have already used to go see Abby in her lab, Tony notes satisfactorily.

“Good morning, McGee,” Ziva offers, her eyes still on Tony.

Tony narrows his own eyes, then stands and moves over towards Tim’s desk in one fluid movement. “Morning McEarlyBird,” Tony checks Tim’s posture, the lanky look of him. “Catch any worms?” he asks pointedly.

Tim lifts both brows as he looks at Tony head on. “Nope,” he smirks. “But if I had, Tony, I’d be sure and send them your way.”

Tony jerks his chin up and back down. “Haha. Very funny.”

“I thought so,” Tim leans down and brings his computer out of hibernation.

Tony peeks down. It looks as though Tim was checking his calendar earlier. Tony squints.

“Is that another doctor’s appointment you’ve got for today?” he stalls Tim’s hand over the mouse before Tim can close the application.

“Tony!” Tim tries to smack his hand out of the way, but Tony won’t be deterred.

“That’s got to be the third one in two months!” Tony straightens up with alarm, then turns back to glance at Ziva, whose brow is furrowed with concern.

Tim flicks off the monitor and places his palm on Tony’s chest, giving him a firm shove out of the way. “That’s none of your business, Tony.”

“It is completely my business, our business,” he corrects with a look back behind him at his partner, “if you’re sick, Probie!”

“Hey,” Tim lifts that hand that shoved Tony and lands it on the back of the Senior Agent’s neck. “I’m not sick,” and Tim levels his gaze right at Tony when he says it.

Tony glances back and forth between Tim’s eyes, but he already knows Tim can’t directly lie to anyone. Still, Tony’s found over the years that Probie could teach seminars on lies of omission. He narrows his gaze at Tim, but Tony can still feel the echoes of fear creeping up inside him. He wonders if Probie can see it in his eyes. “So why are you seeing a doctor?” he prods again.

“None of your business,” Tim says one more time and then he just turns away from Tony like that’s the end of the discussion.

“Ohhh,” Tony shakes his head, “I’m just going to find out anyway, Probie. You may as well tell me now and save us both some pain and suffering, and by both of us, I mean you,” he ends on a grin that sometimes doubles as a threat if he can angle his head enough to the right.

“Tony,” Tim starts, his tone almost bored as he sits back down at his desk and angles his monitor away from Tony, “I have a right to privacy, as do you. The only difference between my right and yours is that you seem to think that only your privacy seems to matter.”

Tony doesn’t even pay attention to the new direction of the monitor because something in Tim’s tone totally hits him in a weird way, and suddenly Tony recognizes that there’s something terribly wrong with this situation. “That’s not true,” he comes back trying to lighten the tone of the conversation. “I tell everybody everything.” He glances to Ziva. “Don’t I?” he prods.

Ziva wrinkles her nose in distaste. “I am afraid I must agree,” she nods, and Tony raises an arm towards her in example. “In fact, I would quite welcome a greater sense of decorum from him,” she concludes.

Tony squinches his eyes at her insult, but then turns right back to Tim at his proven point. “You see!” he declares.

Tim leans back in his chair and looks at Tony in contemplation, and there’s something in his posture that makes Tony feel like there’s more to his consideration of him than Tony could really imagine. “Agent Barrett,” Tim points behind Tony, and for a second Tony jerks before he realizes Tim hasn’t spotted her, but rather he’s using her as a point. “Jeanne Benoit,” he continues. “Claire.”

“Those were ages ago,” Tony interrupts, feeling his chest tighten in something that maybe someone less even-mannered than he is might consider panic as he wonders why Tim might be bringing all those things up after so long. Why would he still find such ancient history important? “Besides, it’s not like any of it meant anything in the long run,” and that’s kind of what Tony always tells himself, but he can see by the set of Tim’s shoulders as he stands that his Probie doesn’t agree.

“Maybe it didn’t mean anything in the long run,” Tim allows, but Tony does not let down his guard, hearing the ‘but’ coming already. “However,” of course Probie goes for the three syllable version of the word, “maybe this thing of mine doesn’t either.”

And Tony purses his lips because that, right there, is an out and out lie. Whatever it is Probie’s keeping from them, it matters to him a lot.

 

By the end of the day, Tony gives up the twenty dollars to Ziva, but it doesn’t even phase him when the bill leaves his hand. Tony seems terribly shaken by McGee’s words throughout the entire day, and Ziva must confess she is, too. She watches the look on Tony’s face when McGee leaves for his latest doctor’s appointment at nine o’clock, and it is as if all the steam has been let out of his tires.

The tension between the two men continues through the rest of the day, but it’s not until Abby joins them in MCRT late in the morning, shortly after McGee returns, her new sadness brimming over at her lover’s absence, that Ziva notes McGee’s estrangement seems to be, not from Tony alone, but from the whole team.

There is the way that McGee allows Abby to hug him, but steps away from her quickly—not as if he dislikes the contact precisely, but more as though he feels no connection between them. Then there is how McGee does not engage the others in conversation during lunch, a fact that suddenly makes Ziva realize he has not truly been involved in personal discussion for some time. But worst of all is the look on Gibbs’ face when she catches him watching McGee spring out of the office at the end of the day. By the look in their team leader’s eye, he has been observing something unusual about McGee for quite a while. She steps up to Gibbs once the lift’s doors have closed on McGee, but Gibbs shuts her down before she can even open her mouth.

“If he’d wanted us to know, he would have told us,” Gibbs says with a shake of his head and refuses to say anything more about it. He stays in the office for a long time afterward, and Ziva is certain he is only doing so to keep Tony from using federal resources to investigate what is occurring with McGee.

Tony finally gives up after an hour, and Ziva leaves when he does. They decide to take supper in a nearby diner to determine their next step.

“Any ideas?” Tony asks the moment he sits down.

Ziva widens her eyes and tilts her chin. “I am certain he is not ill. I had thought at first perhaps a loved one was instead, but he seems too happy—peaceful even for that to be so.”

Tony nods his agreement. “But why would he go to the doctor about something good?” Tony questions.

Ziva turns to look outside, though she is only really examining from within. “We are assuming it is a medical doctor.”

“But it could be anything!” Tony finishes her thought. “Did Probie say at any time he was actually going to see a doctor doctor, or are we just assuming?” Ziva turns to Tony just to watch his face fall, “But if it were an appointment for another kind of doctor,” Tony begins.

“Then why would he be permitted the time off?” Ziva concludes with a shake of her head.

Ziva hums and automatically orders a coffee when the waitress comes through. Tony gets a soda. “Oh,” she raises both hands and claps them together. “Maybe he is helping someone with a medical condition. A, uh,” her brow crinkles, “a donation!” she finishes triumphantly.

“Ha!” Tony waggles a finger at her conclusion. “Good thinking,” he praises.

“There are many things one can donate,” Ziva continues, “blood, plasma, bone marrow, perhaps even an organ if he is close enough to the individual.”

Tony locks eyes with her, and she can tell they share the same thought. “Sarah,” Tony says it first and immediately begins to worry his bottom lip.

Ziva reaches across the table to grab his arm. “He is not worried, remember,” she tries to reassure him. “If McGee is making a medical donation, it is not to someone he feels especially close to.”

Tony nods and slowly leans back in his chair. Some of the color starts leaking back into his features. “Okay,” he furrows his brow. “So medical donation. Most of those databases make their lists and DNA findings available to law enforcement, so if Tim did put himself on one of their registers—”

“Then Abby should be able to find it when we ask her to look it up tomorrow,” Ziva finishes with a flourish.

And Tony nods and smiles, but the expression does not reach his eyes, and Ziva can feel the worry he feels for their friend.

“He will be alright,” she tries to convince Tony.

“Even if he is,” Tony shakes his head, concern shading every movement, “we’re not. Our team,” he clarifies, though he does not have to, “our team’s in trouble, Ziva.”

And Ziva’s eyes flitter to the white table between them, seeing only that he is correct. “Tomorrow,” she reminds him, “tomorrow we will ask Abby to help us with the searches, and we will figure this out,” she promises.

 

Chapter 2

Abby doesn’t even complete the search on the first database—which of course she’ll search on the DL if it helps her Timmy! she promises—before Tony and Ziva discover firsthand what’s been going on in McGee’s life.

It starts with a phone call from security while Tim’s down a flight helping Michaelson’s team with some eh…blah, blah, blah computer thing. Wallace asks Tony whether it’s okay to send up Lila Johnson for Agent McGee, and certainly it’s all right! And Tony tells Wallace that right away.

“Wallace is escorting a Lila Johnson up here for McGee,” Tony declares, and rubs his palms together in anticipation. Much to Tony’s disappointment, Tim makes it back up the stairs before the mystery woman arrives, but, as Tony immediately consoles himself, he’ll at least be able to watch Tim’s unchecked expression the first time Tim sees Ms. Lila Johnson in MCRT.

Tony checks in with Ziva across the way, who’s obviously biting her cheek in her own eagerness. One glance at the Boss, whose own head is up and curious, tells Tony Gibbs is too interested to interfere either.

And then the elevator dings and out steps Wallace with a very pretty redhead who looks a little too mature and waaay too pregnant to be Probie’s girlfriend. About half of Tony’s face squinches in disappointment at the let down. She must be some relative, Tony supposes. Or—ooh—Tony cringes. He hopes she’s not a crazed Thom E. Gemcity fan. It was bad enough the first time, but if it happens again after Tony’s okayed her presence, he sucks in a breath between clenched teeth. Oh, that does not bode well.

“Lila!” Tim stands immediately upon spying her, his brows lifting in surprise and, is that pleasure? Tony really hopes it’s pleasure.

“Tim,” she grins back a little more sedately, and waddles his way.

Tim kisses her cheek in greeting and offers her his chair at once.

She waves him off, “I’m good.” She glances around their cubicle and then back to Tim, lifting an expectant eyebrow.

Tim lifts a brow right back at her, completely unintimidated despite the distinct schoolmarm overtones emanating from his guest’s direction.

Tim steps around her to her side, places a friendly hand between her shoulder blades, “Lila Johnson,” he introduces her, “meet my team. Tony,” Tony gives a little wave when Tim points at him, “Ziva,” Probie gestures to Ziva, who probably smiles at her, “and our Boss, Gibbs,” and Boss gives her that broad smile—well, broad for him—that he always gives attractive redheads.

Lila smiles back at them all. “Good to finally meet you,” she tells them, sending a pointed glance Tim’s way. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Really?” Tony begins incredulously. “He hasn’t said a word about you!” and the words simply pop out.

“Tony!” Ziva hisses from across the way.

Tony shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head. What? He mouths, but she just rolls her eyes.

“No, it’s alright. I already knew that,” and Lila grins like there’s something terribly funny about that.

Tim levels a look at her, but it just makes her grin a little more cheekily. Tim licks his lips and glances at the space between the two of them. He drops his hand from her back and twists his body just a touch to face her. And then, Tim very deliberately does not ask her into the other room to speak with her privately. Or, at least, it looks deliberate to Tony, though the senior agent supposes he could be wrong. Tony looks at the tableau with renewed interest.

“What’s up?” Tim asks, his face a little closer to Lila Johnson’s than Tony would expect from McPersonalSpace.

“I need the car keys,” she holds out her hand like a sixteen-year-old daughter to her dad. Although the amusement with which she does it kind of takes away from that image.

Tim licks his lips and ducks his head in a smile. Maybe he caught on to Tony’s idea. Immediately, Tim dips into his pocket.

“You’re letting her drive the Porsche!” Tony asks, scandalized. Tim’s never, ever, ever even let him drive the Porsche. Not even that day when Tim got really sick and started throwing up everywhere, and Tony so very nicely offered to return his car to him so it’d be ready for him the next day.

Lila turns and scrunches her face up at Tony, as if she feels a little bad for him. “He got rid of the Porsche a month ago,” she reveals as she takes the proffered keys and exchanges them for another set.

“Haaah!” Tony clutches his heart. “I thought the Porsche was in the shop! I thought the SUV was just a rental! Why would you…” he looks to Tim imploringly. “Why?”

“Because you can’t fit a baby in a two-seater, DiNozzo,” Gibbs fields the question, and when Tony’s eyes shoot over to Boss, the older man’s watching Tim appraisingly. Tony’s gaze zooms back to Tim.

Tim ducks his head and smiles broadly, yet almost shyly. “No, you can’t, Boss.”

“My mom finally found the last pieces of the old crib, and I want to pick it up today,” Lila begins again while Tony’s practically spasming in shock.

“I can come with you after five-thirty,” Tim says in hushed tones as he lowers his head a little closer to her.

“Nah,” she waves him off. “I’d rather do it now. I’m dying to finish setting up the nursery,” she reveals.

And Tim nods and smiles indulgently and when he leans into her, she leans right back as if the response is ingrained. The kiss is light, and the soft palms Probie rests on her belly are possessive and sure of their welcome.

“I love you,” he mouths against her lips.

“I love you, too,” she mouths right back.

And Tony must have been the only one on the team who could have seen the exchange of words, and it kind of makes him feel bad for catching it, like he’s intruding on something private.

“See you later,” she bids Tim back into her with a look even as he’s pulling away, and Probie comes as surely as if she’s reeling him in.

Lila puts a little bit of a show into it, Tony can tell, maybe because Tim’s hidden her from them for so long, maybe because she likes to show off her man like some women do. Maybe it’s just to give Tim an extra bit of a thrill, too, on the other hand. When she leans back again, it’s with a satisfied glint to her eye. “Thanks,” she says.

Tim clears his throat, eyes still shut. “Yeah.” He blinks them open quickly as she starts to move away. “Oh, wait, Lolly! I’ve gotta walk you out!” Tim grabs her hand.

And this calm, confident woman blushes bright red at that. “Tim!” she exclaims in two lilting syllables.

“Ooh, I, uh, sorry,” Tim tilts his head, not looking sorry at all.

“Yeah,” Lila—‘Lolly’?—chuffs, apparently as convinced of Tim’s apology as Tony is. But she keeps his hand in hers as she bids the team goodbye and the pair walk down to the lobby together.

It takes an excruciating ten minutes for Tim to see his girlfriend off—girlfriend? Tony reconsiders, but then again there wasn’t a ring on her finger, so he supposes that has to be an accurate term what with the kissing.

Tony and Ziva are both pacing and practically vibrating with anticipation when Tim calmly walks back into MCRT, smug grin all over his face as he struts right past them and the questions shooting from their mouths to get back to his work station. He reaches into his back pocket for his wallet, and gets out a few pictures before leaning against his desk.

“His name is Josh,” Tim begins shyly, and lets them pass the ultrasounds between them. “Joshua Isaac Johnson McGee,” he elaborates.

Tony hears Gibbs stand up behind him, and he hands the older man the first picture as soon as he makes it to the group.

“Long name for such a little guy,” Tony observes with a grin as he surrenders the rest of the ultrasounds to Ziva and Gibbs.

“We fought on it for months,” Tim confesses almost cheerfully.

“Why did you not tell us?” Ziva’s the first one to ask the question on all their minds.

Tim just shakes his head. “Because it’s my personal life.”

And Boss’ eyebrow goes way up at that, but Gibbs doesn’t say a word, so Tony has to step in.

“That’s never stopped you before!” Tony exclaims. “And this is seriously a big thing to not tell us about, Tim. We didn’t even know you were seeing this ‘Lolly’ until today, let alone—”

Tim straightens immediately, “Don’t,” he points a single digit right at Tony, “call her that,” he warns.

Tony blinks at the anger, the protectiveness in Tim’s tone, but most of all, he’s startled by the fact that Tim seems to feel he has to protect his home life from his friends at work. “I-I’m sorry,” Tony literally stutters. “I didn’t realize—”

Tim winces, “No, I’m sorry,” Tim backs away. “I know you didn’t mean,” he clears his throat. “It’s just private,” he concludes, voice low. And, of course, for Tim that means it’s something sexual. Tim never dishes on the really good details.

“How far along is Lila?” Gibbs finally adds something to the conversation.

“Six months and three weeks,” and Boss must be a genius because that’s all it takes to make Tim grin again.

“That change of address you put in four months ago,” Gibbs leads, and Tony’s eyes shoot right for the Boss, then flitter over to Ziva when Tony doesn’t find any details there.

But Ziva just shakes her head in amazement, and it doesn’t make Tony feel better, per se that Ziva didn’t know about Probie’s move either, but it does make Tony feel slightly less worse about not knowing.

“It’s Lila’s townhouse,” Tim confirms. “We’ve talked about buying a new place together later on, but there’s no rush. We have to trade off on the study right now, which is not ideal,” he admits, “but I doubt I’ll have much time for writing in the next year or two anyway,” and Tim’s grin is chock-full of glee this time.

Ziva smiles back at Tim, but there’s something sad about it. “I am very pleased for you, McGee,” she says, and Tim looks right at her, and as Tony looks on, the formality of her statement brings a distance back between Tim and the team, taking the edge off Tim’s excitement and regulating the three of them back to some mere co-worker realm where Tim thought they should live for whatever reason in this place where it seemed okay to him not to share his major life changes with them.

“Thank you, Ziva,” Tim returns, equally as formal, and as Probie extends his hand to take the ultrasounds back, Tony watches as Ziva starts kicking herself for bringing that distance back into their circle.

“Are you, are you getting married?” Ziva tries again, but Probie just gives a false little smile as he shoves his wallet back into his slacks.

“Nope,” Tim answers as he bolts off his desk and moves back around to his chair.

“Would you tell us if you were?” Tony asks pointedly, no longer seeing a reason to tread softly.

“I’d tell you if you asked,” Tim confirms, but it’s easy to see, considering the last few months, that that’s not quite the same thing in Probie’s point of view.

“Congratulations, Tim,” Gibbs offers, gaining a little bit of that smile back on Tim’s face.

“Yeah, congrats, Probie,” Tony follows suit.

“Congratulations, McGee,” Ziva speaks a little more quietly, perhaps in concern of creating an even greater chasm between them.

“Thank you,” Tim returns, smiling that public smile he gets sometimes. Then he gets back to work.

The cubicle is uncomfortably quiet for an aching forty-five minutes afterward. Their rhythm doesn’t start to return until Gibbs gets the batsignal and the team piles into their respective vehicles and makes their way to the crime scene.

On second thought, Tony reconsiders in the silence of the van, he’s afraid their team’s rhythm may be too far gone to ever recover.

 

It is easily the most uncomfortable crime scene MCRT has ever worked together. Tony is unable to make jokes of even the burnt bacon littering the floor of the kitchen. For some reason, he normally finds poorly cooked food unreasonably funny, so Ziva knows how very deeply affected he is by McGee’s incredible revelations.

Since the cat is already out of the box, McGee apparently decides to tell Ducky and Palmer about the baby as well, offering the ultrasounds as he did in the bullpen. Ducky is exceedingly excited to learn of the pregnancy until he sees the pictures.

“I’d judge him to be six months along or so, wouldn’t you, Mr. Palmer?” Ducky actually speaks hesitantly—Ducky!

“Oh, right!” Jimmy leans over Ducky’s shoulder to better view the pictures. “And you’ve got a 3D ultrasound, too! Those are so cool. Although they don’t usually do that unless the mother’s high risk,” Jimmy looks up in concern.

When Ziva glances to McGee at the near-question from Palmer’s lips, McGee simply nods. “She’s forty-three,” he confirms, “and it’s her first pregnancy.”

Ziva raises her brows in surprise. While it was obvious Lila was older than McGee, she had not imagined there were ten years between them.

“Oh! Oh wow! Did you have fertility treatments?” Jimmy asks completely unselfconsciously though his question is incredibly invasive.

Ziva glances to Tony, and with that look, she can tell he’d never considered the idea either. How much more has McGee hidden from us? she has to wonder, but then McGee responds,

“Um, no,” and he says it with a little chagrin, “plain old-fashioned accident.”

And something in Ziva relaxes a touch at the declaration.

“Well, the good news is the twelfth rib and the nasal bones look normal,” Jimmy smiles at his pronouncement.

“What’s that mean?” Gibbs asks even though he’d normally be prodding them back to work about now.

“It means the baby is unlikely to have Down’s Syndrome,” Ducky tells Gibbs, “the most common birth defect of babies born to mothers over the age of forty.”

“Good,” Gibbs nods with a glance over at McGee. McGee nods back, gaining a bit of a smile back to his face. “That’s good,” Gibbs concludes.

“The doctor already let us know,” McGee nods as he takes the pictures back.

“Tim!” a man’s voice booms from the foyer and into the living room where the team has gathered around the body.

McGee turns, “Jeff!” he smiles and walks over to greet the newcomer with a handshake. “Hey, how’s it going?”

Irritated does not begin to describe the look on Gibbs’ face, and yet their team leader says nothing to this man with a US Marshal’s badge invading their crime scene.

“Fair to middlin’,” the marshal smiles, “How’ve you been?”

“Great!” McGee enthuses. “Lila and I tried that foot massage thing you described and the difference is incredible!”

“Always good to know when your experience benefits somebody else,” the marshal heartily pats McGee on the back, and Ziva can feel Tony practically ready to bark beside her.

“What are you doing here?” Tim asks.

Jeff points to one of the dead men on the couch. “Your second victim was in WitSec.”

“Oh,” and when McGee turns back to the primary crime scene, he rubs the back of his neck uncomfortably.

“You gonna introduce us to your buddy, McGee?” the words drip with sarcasm from Tony’s lips.

“Uh, sure,” Tim agrees distractedly like he does not hear Tony’s tone at all. “US Marshal Jeff Brown,” he uses his palm to point at the man. “Agents Gibbs, DiNozzo, David and our medical examiner Dr. Mallard and his assistant Jimmy Palmer,” he finishes distractedly.

Marshal Brown drops his chin to glance at McGee from the corner of his eye, but then he looks right back to the team and offers a smile. “Good to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Tony visibly cringes, “I’m going to finish the kitchen,” he points towards the most disgusting room in the house—even when taking the two dead bodies into account—and walks right for it.

McGee watches him leave, and the look of what can only be guilt slipping across his features bids Ziva to say, “I will help you.”

Between them, Tony and Ziva make quick work of the kitchen, but for the first time since she has known him, Tony works beside her in silence.

“Do you think it was a job interview?” he finally asks when the voices coming from the living room get softer as they move the bodies outdoors. “With the Marshals?” Tony clarifies, though there is no need.

Ziva licks her lips, fully intending to lie to him, knowing that she can frequently get away with it if she angles her brows correctly. “Yes,” she whispers instead.

“Why would he,” Tony sits heavily in the nearest chair. “I mean, sure we haven’t really hung out lately,” he begins again, “but he’s my best friend. Why wouldn’t he have said something?”

“Why would he remain silent on any of it?” Ziva returns fervently, taking a seat across from him. “He has had a girlfriend for at least seven months, a child nearly ready to make his appearance into the world, a new home, perhaps a new job,” Ziva’s brow furrows heavily at that, and she shuts her eyes tightly, feeling the sting. “I do not understand, either,” she confesses.

“He talked about privacy yesterday,” Ziva opens her eyes at the desperation in Tony’s voice. “That has to mean something important right?”

Ziva shrugs, shakes her head, “I don’t kn—”she pauses mid-word. “Yes,” she reconsiders. “He was most preoccupied with it,” she easily recalls. “He was upset that you wanted to know details about his life but would not share the same details about your life.”

Tony nods and swipes at his mouth, “Right,” he points at her. “So if I tell him everything going on with me, then that should make us square,” he lifts his brows at her, and it is obvious to her that he is grasping at grass.

“Tony,” she shakes her head.

“No,” he refuses her, still holding that single finger up. “No, this is gonna work,” he declares. “I mean, I don’t really have anything going on right now, exactly,” Tony admits reluctantly, “Well, the usual one night stands after the whole thing with EJ blew up, but he doesn’t like to hear about those.” Tony scratches his forehead. “I kind of stopped talking to him about most of them after it got kind of obvious how he was just humoring me ‘cause sometimes I could see him cringe when I went into any details, and,” Tony locks his jaw. “Okay, so he probably doesn’t actually want to hear about those, but he knows everything about me! What the hell could I tell him that he doesn’t already know?”

Ziva purses her lips together. “There must be something he feels he is not a part of, Tony.”

Tony brings his fist to his closed mouth. “Did I cause this thing, whatever it is, with Tim?” he asks hesitantly. “Am I the reason he’s moving away from the team?”

“No,” she shakes her head, certain this is not so. “I do not know what has caused this, but McGee has worked with us for too many years to have been so upset by one thing or even one person,” she clarifies before Tony can interject. “We are missing something.”

Gibbs’ heavy footfall approaches them from the main hallway, but neither of them move despite their relaxed positions.

“Come on,” Gibbs orders gently from the doorway.

Ziva feels as though her feet are drugged as she gathers her evidence and makes her way to the van.

 

Abby hears the two pairs of footsteps the second they exit the elevator. She realizes immediately that neither set belongs to McGee, so she doesn’t bother to move from her stool where she sits with her chin in her hands.

“It’s quiet in here,” Tony sounds freakishly off balance as he observes.

“Don’t feel like music,” Abby’s face pinches as she remembers anew why she doesn’t even want to hear her new Farmer Death MP3s today.

“What is wrong, Abby?” Ziva prods, setting a heavy evidence box down on the table to Abby’s back before coming to stand at her side.

“A part of me thinks that it can’t be the same Timothy-no-middle-initial-McGee, except that it’s a local bank and—”

“You found something in McGee’s financials?” Tony sidles up to her other side.

“No,” Abby drops her hands to her sides, only wishing that was all there was. “I found his name along with a Lila Johnson on an umbilical cord blood donation list. It says their donation to a cord bank is due in two months, but that would mean Timmy’s had a pregnant girlfriend for seven months and—” she sighs heavily and wipes away the tears leaking out from the corners of her eyes. “It can’t be true, right?” she looks between Tony and Ziva’s stoic faces. “McGee would have told us if he were going to have a kid, wouldn’t he?”

By the way Tony’s face falls as she implores him, Abby already knows she’s wrong. “We found out this morning,” he confesses, “right before we left for the crime scene.”

Ziva lays a hand on Abby’s forearm, “I am sorry we did not think to say anything to you.”

“The truth is we were caught off guard,” Tony rubs a hand across her back.

She shrugs him off. “Off guard? Off guard? No,” Abby stands and looks at them both, “Off guard is when you forget to shave your armpits for six days and then somebody spontaneously invites you to the beach. Off guard is when the guy next to you on the plane throws up all over his lap and there’s no barf bag in front of you. Off guard is not when you find out one of your best friends is two months away from becoming a dad! That,” she points to the small triangle between them, “that is unforgivable!” and she’s breathless when she finishes.

And Tony opens his arms to her, and she catapults right into them. He holds onto her so tight that she knows the whole thing is true. She can feel in his grip of her that Tony feels how very suddenly and far Tim’s fallen away from them, too. “How did this happen?” she whispers, and she swears she’ll hit Tony so hard if he makes a joke about the birds and the bees.

It’s almost worse when he doesn’t. “I don’t know,” he confesses, arms still holding her tight. “I just don’t know.”

“I don’t know if it’s her,” she whispers into Tony’s neck, “but there’s a history professor at Waverly named Lila Johnson.”

“Redhead?” Tony asks in a puff of breath against her hair, and that makes it all that much more real.

Abby loosens her grip around Tony’s shoulders, and he lets her go.

“We met her this morning,” Tony tells her. “That’s how it all came out. He wasn’t even going to tell us,” Tony grasps towards the ceiling like he’s trying to understand it all.

“She has all these articles published, and a book!” Abby conveys what she’s learned. “She travels all over the world to study source material and to lecture to international audiences. She’s a real academic, and she’s beautiful. She’s perfect for Timmy,” Abby feels her face scrunch up because yeah, she and McGee may have been more off-again than on-again in the last eight years, but it had always felt like there was that chance lying there and just waiting for her. Even during the whole thing with Simon, who was sweet and adorable and just really interesting, she’d always known she’d choose McGee if she’d had to choose between them. To think how proud she’d been of McGee that he didn’t try to make her choose. She’d even started thinking lately that maybe it was time for the two of them because of how cool Timmy’d been during the whole Simon thing, but it so obviously is not time, and maybe will never be now. It probably never will be, she corrects herself, feeling her face fall.

“I always thought McGee and I would—” and she can’t finish because how could she? It’s so foolish in retrospect!

Tony’s face pinches up at that, and he takes a step away from her. “I can guarantee you he never knew that because I sure as hell didn’t!”

“Tony!” Abby ducks her head just a little. “He had to have known,” but she bites her tongue because she knows it’s not true. “Timmy knows he’s my desert island person! I’ve told him a thousand times,” and that’s simply a fact.

“You want him on a desert island just not any other time, is that right?” Tony lays into her, eyes narrowed, jaw locked.

“Tony,” Ziva’s calm voice cuts between them like a tugboat through the water. “This is not helping.”

Tony turns his glare to Ziva, and Abby can’t help but feel the tension in her shoulders ease by a hair. “If he’d known that she—” Tony points to Abby.

“Then it may not have changed anything,” Ziva fairly points out, but Tony just steps away from them both, shaking his head.

“You know how he felt—” Tony cuts himself off because McGee’s feelings for Abby have never been something any of them have really talked about with one another.

“I understand,” Ziva begins again, and Abby’s eyes shoot towards the other woman—does she agree with Tony in his anger of Abby? “But we must be united on this if we have a hope of making him stay.”

“Wait!” Abby shakes her head in alarm. “Where would McGee go? He wouldn’t leave NCIS? That can’t be what you mean, and she’s got tenure at Waverly, so it’d be foolish of her to move away, so,” she licks her lips, trying hard to believe in her argument.

“We believe McGee may be looking at other federal agencies,” Ziva admits.

Abby shakes her head. “But he wouldn’t. His dad was in the Navy, and Timmy never could be with his asthma and his seasickness, so this was the closest thing he could get to being in it,” she implores them to agree with her.

“Yeah, well, Tim’s moving on from everybody else. Why not his dad, too?” Tony interjects bitterly.

“No,” Abby shakes her head once more, confident now. “Timmy always said being at NCIS was the only way he could reach out to his dad that would make his dad reach back. He’s not going to give up on the best connection he has with his father.”

But instead of giving them hope, Abby’s words make Ziva’s brow wrinkle and cause Tony to lean his back against the doorframe.

“Tim’s tired of reaching for people who won’t reach back,” Tony purses his lips. “That’s what this whole thing is.” He shifts towards Ziva, “Did you see the way Lila just leaned into him today when he bent down to kiss her?” and oh! how Abby wishes she could just cup her hands over her ears, but she can’t do anything but listen to Tony’s description. “Lila meets him halfway, and we don’t,” Tony concludes. “That’s what this whole thing is,” Tony declares again.

“Tony,” Ziva shakes her head sounding exhausted. “I hope you are wrong.”

“But if we know what’s wrong, we can fix it!” Tony steps off the wall towards Ziva.

“Some relationships cannot be repaired, Tony,” Ziva blinks hard.

Abby studies the other woman’s profile, belatedly remembering Ziva’s distance from her own father.

“This one can,” Tony insists, mouth twisted in determination, and just when Abby starts hoping with all her might that he’s right, she realizes that he’s only talking about his own friendship with McGee. She’s going to have to create her own direction in order to keep Timmy close to her.

She sits back down on the stool thoughtfully, signs for the evidence when she’s bid, and then barely listens as Tony and Ziva make their way back upstairs. She pops her favorite Death Splotch CD into the player and cranks it up loud. Gordon next door will complain, but she needs to stay pumped while she thinks up a plan.

 

Chapter 3

Reach back. It’s Tony’s new theme. From the second the alarm blares, the thought takes off in his mind. Reach back. And Tony’s going to. He hasn’t quite figured out the logistics of it all yet, but he decided last night to make a list of all the things Tim’s done for him in their relationship. He’d debated for a while whether to put in Tim’s smartass maneuvers as well as his regular ‘good friend’ deeds but realized he had to include everything if he wanted to get a complete picture on how to reach back properly. He suspects that his perimeters may be set a little too wide, just like in his triple-i searches because so far, Tony’s only made it up through crime scenes and everything to do with Kate. He’d gotten stalled for a while on that last, but he pushed through.

Tony decides the first way to reach back is to get Tim’s favorite coffee and breakfast sandwich at Dunkin Donuts. He buys a brew for Ziva and Boss as well, knowing that’s something Tim would do, and Tony’s not sure, frankly, if he needs to reach back to other people in order to reach back to Tim, so he’s not taking any chances.

He makes his way to the bullpen only to find two cups of coffee and a muffin from the shop near Ziva’s house already on Tim’s desk. Tony places his own offering with the other two, and smiles. Surely three gifts are better than one, and besides, Tony’s is by far the best one there.

And eight o’clock comes and goes, and Tony watches Gibbs watch the clock. Boss gives Probie a hitherto unheard of lead time of nine whole minutes before he orders Tony, “Find out where McGee is.”

Tony glares at him in betrayal for making Tony be the bearer of bad news, but then he squints as he presses the third speed dial in his phone, wondering how he can make this a reach back moment.

The phone rings four times before Probie answers—just long enough to make Tony’s heart beat faster with concern before McGee’s voice comes across the line. “Hello?” and it sounds as though Tony woke him up.

“Hey, Tim, oversleep?” he asks mildly, watching Gibbs’ shoulders ease a bit across the way.

“No, I—” Tim lets out an agitated breath. “I—what? Is that you, Tony?” he asks distractedly.

Tony’s brow furrows. “Yeah, Tim it’s me. What’s going on?” Tony’s concern ramps up a notch.

“I’m, um, I’m waiting,” and Tim’s words are so unbelievably disconnected, so completely unlike him, that Tony just knows he’s not gonna get an answer he’s gonna like to his next question.

“Where are you, Tim?”

Gibbs’ head shoots back up at either the question or the careful way Tony asks it.

“Uh, I think I’m in Baltimore. Lolly’s mom lives in Baltimore,” Tim speaks slowly, as if afraid he’ll slur his words.

“Is Lo—” Tony corrects himself quickly and hopes like hell Tim doesn’t notice his slip. “Is Lila okay?”

“Mmm,” Tim hums like he’s thinking hard. “I’m not sure. She’s in surgery again.”

“Surgery?” Tony asks though there’s barely enough breath in his body to push out the word.

And Boss and Ziva both stand at that, moving closer to Tony’s desk. Tony obligingly puts the phone on speaker.

“Why is Lila in surgery?” Tony poses the question slowly.

“Because of the car accident,” Tim returns after a minute. “Josh is dead.”

Ziva gasps, her hand going right up to her mouth, and Gibbs runs back to his desk and grabs his pack and his gun. Ziva belatedly does the same, and Tony follows suit as quietly as he can.

“Where are you, Tim? You’re in a hospital, right?” Tony restates the question to try to get a little less of a confused answer from Tim.

“Yyyes,” the word is hesitant, slow to come, like Tim thinks so but isn’t quite sure.

“Tim, you’re shock,” Tony takes it off speaker and runs after his other two teammates as they go for the stairs. “Is there anybody there around you?”

“Umm,” the sound grows softer then louder as Tim very obviously turns to and fro on the other end of the line. “There’s a girl,” he finally says.

Tony winces, but it might be the best thing they’ve got. “How old is the girl, Tim?” he prods as gently as he can.

“I don’t know,” Tim hums again as he wages, “Twenty-four, twenty-five? Do you think I should ask her?”

Tony lets out a breath. “No, don’t ask her that, just give her the phone, okay?”

“Oh,” Tim exhales with disappointment. “I like this phone.”

“You’ll get it back,” Tony promises, practically throwing himself into the backseat of the sedan and not even caring when he sees Ziva driving.

“Oh,” Tim’s voice gets softer. “Josh is dead,” he says again. “That’s my son.”

“I know,” Tony blinks. “And I’m gonna be there with you really soon, but right now I need you to give the phone to the girl, so I can get her to take care of you.”

“Okay,” Tim concedes. Tony can hear him moving, just barely shuffling his feet. Then comes the light rumbling of Tim’s voice, like it’s really far from the phone, before a very confused soprano takes over.

“Um, hello?” the girl asks.

“My name is Special Agent Tony DiNozzo with NCIS. The man who gave this phone is in shock and needs immediate medical attention. Tell him not to move, and get a doctor, please. Can you tell me what hospital you’re at?”

“I—” and he can hear her start running down the hall. “St. Agnes,” she breathes into the phone.

“St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore?” Tony prods, though he recognizes the name right away. Ziva turns to Tony when he speaks the name of the city.

“Yes,” the girl says, and Tony nods the confirmation to Ziva who slams on the gas and heads for the freeway. “Can I get a doctor down here!” the woman on the phone hollers.

The faint sound of multiple pairs of feet running down the hall soothes Tony just a little. The feeling grows little by little the longer Tony stays on the phone with the girl as two distinctly medically trained voices attend to Tim.

“I’m sorry I didn’t realize,” the girl starts crying into the phone. “I’m waiting to hear about my grandma, and I don’t think I even saw him.”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Tony soothes her. “You helped us so much, and I’m so grateful. What’s your name?” he asks.

“Diana.”

“Diana, you did great,” he praises. “Now, can you tell me if he’s doing okay?” Tony redirects her attention to what he needs to know most.

“They say his blood pressure’s too low, and the nurse is getting him a bed,” Diana tells him. “They’re taking him down to the emergency room.”

“Okay,” Tony nods. “Thank you,” he tells her.

“What’s his name?” Diana asks.

“His name is Tim McGee. Would you hand the phone back to him, so I can tell him we’re coming for him?” Tony crinkles his brow, really needing to hear for himself how Tim’s doing.

Tony hears a bit of murmuring in the background. “The doctor wants me to turn off the phone,” Diana tells him. “She says he can’t have it on in the ER.”

Tony winces. “Ziva, how far out are we?” he covers the mouth piece with his shoulder.

“I will make it in twenty minutes,” she swears, making Tony wince and kind of beam with satisfaction at the same time.

“Okay,” Tony says back into the phone. “Diana, will you tell him his team is coming for him? We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“I’ll tell him,” she promises, and a bare moment later, there’s not even a dial tone.

A tense and hectic nineteen minutes later, Ziva pulls up to the emergency room, and Tony and Gibbs run out while Ziva drives on for a parking spot.

“Tim McGee?” Tony asks the already blitzed receptionist.

She covers the phone receiver with a hand as she says, “Sir, I’ll be with you in just a minute.”

But Tony doesn’t have a minute, so he rushes right past her, blatantly using his badge when the security officer tries to stop him at the door. He and Gibbs zoom through the hall, checking behind each door and curtain. It’s not until they get to the first corner and start down the second hallway that they find Tim.

“Hey,” Tony tries to calm his breathing when he sees his friend lying there on his side under two heavy blankets and with an IV in his left hand. “Hey, Tim,” Tony says again, rubbing his friend’s calf as soon as he’s in range. “We’re here,” he speaks as evenly as he can, watching Tim’s eyes just barely come up to greet him, though Tim doesn’t quite manage to focus his gaze. “It’s just me and Gibbs right now, but Ziva’s parking the car.”

“Palmer’s driving Abby and Ducky in, so they’ll be here within the hour, and we couldn’t get in touch with your parents, but we left them a message,” Gibbs adds, and Tony blinks at the details, knowing he heard them while they were travelling in the car, but somehow having put them out of his mind until this moment. “Do you have your gun on you?” Boss continues gently.

“Uh-uh,” Tim shakes his head, giving them a real response for the first time since they arrived. “Didn’t bring it. I was afraid of what I might do if they were both dead,” he confesses rather baldly. “My mother would never forgive me,” he mumbles into the pillow.

And it’s like Tony can’t fucking breathe at all, but Boss just lays a hand on Tim’s shoulder from behind like it’s a perfectly normal response for Tim to consider killing himself.

Tony shakes his head, about to tell Tim how his mother wouldn’t be the only one who wouldn’t forgive Tim if he pulled some bullshit stunt like that, but before Tony can get out so much as a word, he catches Gibbs’ eyes, sees the pinch to Boss’ face, the tilt of his head, and Tony shuts his mouth about it.

And so Tony simply makes himself suck in a breath, makes himself breathe. “Is Lila’s mom in the hospital somewhere?” Tony asks.

“Yes,” Tim answers shortly and, my God! how Tony wishes Ducky were here to fix this. There aren’t even any doctors attending to Tim here!

“Do you know where we can find her, Tim?” Gibbs squeezes Tim’s shoulder as he prods.

Tim nods, and for a second Tony thinks that’s all the answer they’re going to get, but then Tim adds, “She’s in the morgue with Josh.”

“She, she died?” Tony desperately needs to clarify. Tim hadn’t said anything before about Lila’s mom being in the car with her, but why the hell else would she be in the morgue when her daughter was in surgery?

“Yes.” Tim’s brow furrows. “I don’t think Lolly knows.”

And Tony’s got abso-fucking-lutely nothing but the echoes of the now completely useless reach back plan floating around in his head. Tim’s child is dead, and who knows if his girlfriend will survive the day. What the hell can Tony even do for his best friend right now? How the fuck can anybody do anything to make this right?

“We’re going to take care of things for a while, okay, Tim?” Gibbs is the one to speak. “Rest up,” Boss orders.

“Okay,” Tim responds, and like that he closes his eyes.

Tony doesn’t know if Tim’s sleeping two minutes later, but if he’s not, he’s doing a damn fine imitation of it.

“Boss?” Tony looks up to Gibbs, but Gibbs cuts him off with sharp eyes that flick down to Tim before moving back up to Tony. And, okay, Boss apparently thinks Tim still might be aware on some level. Tony nods, assimilating the information. Tony licks his lips, trying to figure out something useful to do. “Did you call Sarah?” he finally asks.

Gibbs shakes his head. “No answer there either.”

Tony nods. They tried all of Tim’s family. “What about Lila’s family?” Tony asks.

“Start with the nurses,” Gibbs orders. “If they haven’t found anybody yet, get on the phone with Agent Farren,” Tony nods. Michaelson’s senior agent’s always had a soft spot for Tim. “Make what calls you need to.”

And Tony practically sprints to be able to go and do something. He runs into Ziva in the hall, and points her towards Probie’s door, not bothering to even slow down. Then Tony makes for the nurses and puts every ounce of his flirting to good use, but he runs out of steam quickly because apparently, Lila’s only other family, her sister, is already on the way from Pittsburgh. Tony puts the call in to Farren anyway, looking for whatever information he can find on Lila and her mother, Grace Johnson. It just turns out to be standard stuff, though. Nothing that tells Tony anything.

In desperation, Tony looks up Tim’s parents and Sarah in his mobile’s contacts, and that’s when he notices he has Sarah’s email address. He rapidly fires off a note letting her know Tim’s unhurt but she and her parents need to get in touch with Tony immediately!

Tony pops open his yellow pages app afterward, looking up mortuaries, remembering how hard finding a good one had been for his ex-girlfriend Haley when both her parents died in a house fire during her senior year at OSU. He’s narrowed it down to two that seem to be willing to take care of more details than the others when he realizes Josh’s ceremony will probably be combined with his grandmother’s, and if it is, Tim won’t be making any choices as to where and when, only possibly how.

So there Tony is, standing in the hallway, phone still in hand, when Abby pops into the ER like a whirlwind.

“I can’t believe it! This has to be some kind of mistake!” Abby spouts rapidly, like she’s in the middle of an argument with somebody even though she ran into the building alone. “I just told the universe last night how okay I was with everything, and, alright, so maybe I was lying but only a little bit, and I honestly think the universe needs to listen a little better to what I’m saying because this is so unbelievably wrong and—Tony!” she yells and scurries over to him the second she spots him. “Is it true? Is the baby really dead?” she questions, eyes wide and horrified.

Tony nods and yanks her to him, holding her close and still feeling as shocked as Abby sounds at the very idea.

“And what about Lila?” Abby pulls back far enough to look at him.

Tony shakes his head. “We don’t know yet.”

“Abigail!” Ducky hollers for her once he steps through the sliding door to the ER. “Oh, I see,” he lowers his voice when he spots her just five feet away. “Anthony,” Ducky directs to him. “Tell me what’s happened.”

Tony sighs in relief. “Ducky, I’m so glad you’re here!” he grabs hold of the older man’s arm and shuffles him right back towards Tim’s room. “He’s just lying there, barely even speaking, and there aren’t any doctors helping him!”

“Oh, dear!” Ducky exclaims and keeps pace with Tony.

But when they get back to Tim’s little curtained off area, Tim’s made a liar of him because he’s sitting up in bed, his eyes open and lucid and hurting so bad, and Tony was only gone for half an hour, but Tim’s arguing with Ziva and Gibbs about checking himself out.

“Timmy!” Abby exclaims the second he’s within her view. She runs to him and tries to hug him, but Tim holds up an arm between them and doesn’t let her close.

“Look, I don’t need this!” Tim continues his argument with Gibbs. He doesn’t even look at Abby whose face crumbles like tin foil at his rejection. “And I don’t appreciate your watchdog bullshit!” and Boss’ features stay solid, his eyes remain compassionate despite Tim’s cursing.

“Let us help you, McGee,” Ziva urges with wide eyes.

“How? How can you possibly help me?” Tim yells and just yanks the IV from his hand like he doesn’t even feel it there.

Unh! and Tony’s stomach totally turns on end.

“Timothy!” Ducky scolds and pushes right through both Ziva and Abby to attend to the bleeding.

“Ducky,” Tim shakes his head, but his respect for the older man’s age and position is too much for Tim’s tongue to overcome, and it stays silent while Ducky cleans and bandages the wound.

“Thank you, Ducky,” Tim spits out with great reluctance when the doctor finishes his ministrations.

“Not at all, Timothy,” Ducky pats his shoulder. “But please don’t make me have to do that again, hm?”

Tim doesn’t nod in agreement, instead looking down to the blankets. He pulls them from his body and jerks his legs over the side of the bed past where Ducky’s still standing. Tony doubts Tim would have dared tried running, even now, starting off in Gibbs’ direction.

Tim’s voice is low when he speaks. “I have to know,” he says when he walks through the tiny crowd.

And Tony has no idea if Gibbs heard Tim, doesn’t bother to glance up and see. Tony just turns as Tim walks by, covering his six, determined not to let anybody, not even Boss, stop his friend before he can find out about Lila.

The two of them make their way up to the surgical waiting room, and Tim immediately goes to the front desk. Tony keeps to Tim’s back to block out any interference, but Gibbs bids the others to fall away and gathers them round in front of a wall of windows facing the city, and somehow, Gibbs himself is like another wall where he stands between Tim and Tony and the rest of the team. And Boss never takes his eyes away from Tim, not even when Abby cries out and throws her arms around Gibbs.

“Lila Johnson?” Probie intones roughly.

“Are you family?” the woman levels her gaze at Tim.

“He’s her next of kin,” Tony quickly interjects before Tim can say a word. Tony doesn’t know if that’s legally true or not, but he doesn’t want Tim to trip himself up over the law with his inherent honesty.

Tim nods beside Tony gratefully, and Tony knows in that split second that he was right to speak up because it’s obvious by the guilty tilt of Tim’s head that he and Lila never made anything official.

But the receptionist nods back obliviously. She types a few words into her computer, then tilts her chin back towards them as she reads. “Her condition is listed as stable,” Tony feels some of the tension across his shoulders relax at the announcement. “She’s in recovery right now,” the receptionist concludes.

“Can I see her?” Tim’s voice breaks.

The woman looks to him, her eyes heavy with compassion. “I’ll have to page the nurse to make sure but probably,” she adds.

“Thank you,” Tony tells her when she picks up the phone. He places a light hand on Tim’s elbow, biting his lip when he feels how clammy Tim’s skin is. Tony glances up to Ducky, wondering if he should call the older man over, but that’s when Probie digs in his heels and won’t move another inch farther.

Tony squints as he looks to the rest of team, which now includes Jimmy who had to have met them on the way upstairs.

“I don’t want everyone around me all at once, Tony,” Tim warns him, and when he turns his eyes to Tony, Tim’s really looking right at him—completely and horrifically aware.

And Tony doesn’t want to hold that gaze, but he can’t look away either. “Okay,” he promises and moves his hand to Tim’s shoulder, trying as best he can to keep that connection between them, to keep Tim tethered to all of them.

“How am I gonna tell her about Josh?” Tim whispers in the space between them. “How am I gonna tell her about her mom?”

And Tony wishes so hard he had an easy answer. He doesn’t think he’s ever felt so useless as he does right now when all he can do is squeeze Tim’s shoulder and tell him the truth. “I don’t know.”

Tim’s breathing hard, and then the receptionist calls out Lila’s name and looks their way.

“Come on,” Tony twists them around, moving his palm to the base of Tim’s neck, and Tim’s the one that takes the first step back towards the information desk, but Tony’s right with him the entire time.

The receptionist takes them to a nurse at the recovery entrance.

“Only one person in the room at a time,” the nurse warns.

“I’m just here for him,” Tony pats Tim’s back.

The nurse narrows his eyes suspiciously but takes them back to Lila’s room anyway. Tony squeezes Tim’s neck once more at the doorway to Lila’s room.

Tim turns the knob, but then whips his head back around to Tony. “You’ll be here?” Tim asks, eyes wide with grief.

“Right here,” Tony promises, locking his stance.

Tim nods. “Okay,” he points to the door, open just a pinch now. “I’m just gonna,” he points inside.

“I’ll be right here, Tim,” Tony tells him once more before the younger man will open the door all the way.

The glimpse Tony catches of Lila once Tim turns into the room is pretty horrific—bruises painted all over her body, broken shoulder, broken leg, and with the way those bright white bandages are wrapped around her skull, Tony’s betting a good portion of that pretty red hair is gone.

He takes up sentry at the door, and doesn’t fucking move from his post for hours, not even when he hears the soft, muffled tones of Tim’s voice through the door and the high pitched wailing that comes afterward. He answers the frantic texts he gets from Abby and Ziva after a while, but there’s not really any news anyway.

Doctors and nurses, or maybe just nurses, sometimes it’s hard to tell, come and go from the room and curiously tilt their heads at Tony as they walk by. Sometimes they say a word. Sometimes they don’t.

“We’re moving her,” the last nurse through tells Tony. “Room 516.”

Tony nods gratefully, starts his text to Ziva, but before he can finish, the whole kit and caboodle of medical staff come out of the room with Lila and Tim. The head nurse tells Tim he can’t go up in the service elevator with them.

“Okay,” Tony responds and lays his hand back on Tim’s shoulder with a solidness he doesn’t feel. “We’ll meet you up there,” he tells them, and steers Tim back to the reception area where their team’s been waiting for—Tony checks his watch again though he knows he did it only a couple minutes before—almost three hours.

The team jumps to their feet when they see the duo. “Room 516,” Tony tells them before they can get too close, then he just keeps directing Tim towards the elevator. “We’ll meet you up there, okay?” it’s a request for space, and while Ziva and Gibbs both nod right away, Abby’s mouth opens in protest just as the doors to the lift shut between the two groups.

“She was lucky,” Tim reveals in the silence between the third and fourth floor. “The debris sliced through her head and neck, but it missed every major artery as well as her spine.” He takes a harsh breath in like he’s just remembering breathing is something he’s supposed to do. “She’s going to live, and they think she’ll recover,” he winces, “fairly well, but they kept saying it’s still too early to know for sure how much she’ll be physically affected by this.”

“She’s going to live,” Tony reiterates the good news and tightens his grip at the base of Tim’s neck, taking comfort in the way Tim’s starting to lean into that repeated touch. Maybe it’s even helping Tim. God, Tony hopes it’s helping.

“Yeah,” Tim confirms, and his face crumples in a mixture of relief and sadness. “She’s going to live,” Tim says again, nodding to himself.

And when Tim and Tony round the last corner and see the nurse shuffle Lila into her room, Lila has her good hand on her still extended belly, and her eyes are open, but it’s like there’s nothing behind them at all.

 

Chapter 4

Ziva has been to a great many funerals in her lifetime. Each one was terrible in its own way, but to see this tiny casket with McGee’s tinier son inside renews her sense of horror at the useless face death all too often takes.

McGee consented for his son to share his funeral with Lila’s mother, Grace, and most of the mourners address her family. Only the team and McGee’s parents and sister—who had had to fly in from Arizona where they had been visiting Mrs. McGee’s elderly mother—keep with McGee the entire time.

It seems, at moments, that they are truly the only ones there for Lila as well because Lila’s twin sister Lily can barely even speak to any of them, so angry is she at her sister for their mother’s death. It is only then, in the middle of the funeral home where Lila sits in a wheelchair, barely conscious for all the drugs in her system yet still in obvious pain despite them, that Ziva learns the car accident was Lila’s fault. According to the police report Ziva looks up later, Lila lost control of the vehicle on the offramp of the interstate, jamming into a guardrail and over an embankment.

Watching the way Tim steps between the sisters, trying so desperately to remind Lily that their loss is shared, Ziva knows—absolutely—that McGee would never have spoken a word against Lila himself about the accident. It still startles Ziva sometimes how very good Tim is. At times, it is just as hard for her to have faith in that goodness now as it was on the first occasion she saw it because she has never seen its like in anyone else. If there is anyone less deserving of losing a child, she cannot imagine who it might be.

The worst of it though, is when McGee sees Lila back to the hospital after they bury their son in the ground. Ziva did not witness it herself, but Tony, whom McGee had not refused when Tony asked if he might drive them to and from the funeral, tells of how McGee had no sooner seen to her re-admittance to the hospital than Lila forbade him from coming to her room. Lila has it written on her chart that Tim is not permitted in to see her at all.

McGee stays inside the hospital that day anyway, writing Lila notes that beg her to let him visit her. Tony cannot convince him to leave until the charge nurse comes out to the waiting room and tells McGee he is upsetting Lila and possibly setting back her ability to heal. And so they go.

Tony, though he is almost viciously angry at Lila when he recounts the story to Ziva that night, tells Ziva how he knows the separation is not what Lila wants. He says to Ziva that he cannot understand why Lila would do such a thing to Tim when she has to need him as much as he needs her. But Tony is lying, and Ziva knows it even before his eyes give it away, because Tony has always understood guilt as few others come to know it. And Lila’s guilt seems much like Tony’s often is—truly inconsolable.

McGee returns to work the next day, but he is as a ghost in the bullpen. Ducky tries to convince him to go home while Abby jumps into the conversation with the suggestion that what Timmy really needs is to cuddle with Bert for a while, but Gibbs interrupts the exchange and tells them all that he will not hear of anyone telling McGee what he needs and does not need right now, and then Gibbs stands between McGee, where he sits meekly at his desk, and the rest of them team until Ducky eyes Gibbs knowingly and leaves the bullpen, until Abby hugs her little farting pig and retreats back to her lab with pouting lips, and until Ziva and Tony retake their own proper seats.

Ziva watches, then, from the corner of her eye, as Gibbs walks around McGee’s desk. Their Boss lays both his hands on Tim’s shoulders, and he lingers behind Tim for a moment, mouth poised as if he wishes to say something. In the end, Gibbs simply squeezes McGee’s shoulders and walks silently back to his desk.

And after the days of McGee’s complete silence comes the irritability when the only things he seems able to tolerate are Gibbs’ concentrated muteness and Tony’s solid touch on his upper back. Later, Ziva discovers McGee can also sit for her soft praying in Hebrew. Sometimes she does not even pray, though. Sometimes she simply tells him how terribly sorry she is and that she loves him and misses him and she would do anything at all to bring his son back to him were it in her power.

Through it all, Tim does not speak of any of it. He will not say a word of Josh, whom Ziva can always see on McGee’s face and on his mind whenever she looks at him. Tim does not talk of Lila, though Ziva has heard him leave messages for her at the hospital and on Lila’s cell phone numerous times, has watched McGee compose countless letters and emails to her.

And so it is that Ziva and the rest of the team discover, once again after the fact, when Lila comes home two and a half weeks after the accident. They find out because they each spy Tim’s rental car, laden with clothes and suitcases, when they come through the garage that morning. And Tim does not have to say anything at all for them to know that he no longer has a place to live.

Ziva does not know what words Gibbs finds to convince him, but McGee follows their Boss home that night. McGee’s car is missing from the parking garage the next day, but the passenger seat of Gibbs’ Charger is pushed farther back than it usually is, and when Ziva walks into the bullpen, Gibbs and McGee sit silently but companionably across from one another.

That weekend, she and Tony help Gibbs clean out two rooms of his house—the den and Kelly’s old room. They must shuffle around Tim’s things where they rest amongst Kelly’s possessions. Afterward, the whole team, along with Sarah, pitch in to move the rest of McGee’s belongings from Lila’s townhouse into Gibbs’ home.

When they arrive at Lila’s, the nurse she hired stands at the door to the downstairs guest bedroom with compassionate eyes as Tim tells her what foods Lila likes to eat and asks if she knows Lila’s allergic to strawberries and tells her Lila can’t generally stand television but she always watches Anne of Green Gables when she’s sick. He does not ask to see Lila, perhaps because the answer is so obviously ‘no’ in the way the nurse keeps position outside the bedroom.

It only takes two hours for the team to separate McGee and Lila’s lives, but it seems as ages longer because Ziva must jog interference the entire time between McGee and Abby. Every time she passes him in a room or hallway, Abby tries to hug the sadness from Tim’s face. And Ziva can see the way Abby’s love and compassion for McGee is almost overwhelming to the Goth. Ziva can see in Abby’s slightest body language how deeply she wishes to comfort McGee and connect with him, and even how angry she is at Lila’s rejection of him, despite the feelings she’s recently revealed to have for McGee. But Abby seems not to take into account that this was Tim’s home with his lover—a lover that was not Abby—for many months. How impossible must that feel for Tim to be caught between two women that he loved? Two women who both turned him away?

And so Ziva distracts Abby as best she can, though she is unable to remain with the other woman at all times. It is not until the rest of the team is cleaning up the downstairs study after removing McGee’s bookshelves, that Ziva realizes she is not nearly as successful as she supposes in her plan to keep McGee and Abby apart.

Abby plops down on Lila’s living room sofa beside where Ziva carefully packs McGee’s framed photos in newspaper. When Abby glances up at Ziva, their eyes just meeting before Abby’s flitter away, there is a hopelessness there that Ziva has never known of Abby, not even in those dark days when they first met. After Kate had just died.

“Abby!” Ziva grabs at the other woman’s arm. “What is wrong?”

Abby shakes her head, her brow furrowing as she licks her lips. “I didn’t understand. Why didn’t you tell me I didn’t understand?” she demands, her lips quivering in a manner so far removed from her usual determinedly playful purse.

“What has happened?” Ziva ducks her head to try to look Abby in the eye.

“He doesn’t want me to hug him anymore,” Abby tells her miserably.

“McGee?” Ziva asks with high inflection, knowing there is only one ‘he’ on Abby’s mind right now, but at the same time, unable to believe that McGee actually turned Abby away.

Beside Ziva, Abby nods. “He told me I didn’t understand, and he told me,” her breath catches, “he meant every word he’d ever said to me but he would still—” she sniffles, “Josh was still—” Abby’s face crumbles up completely. “I didn’t understand,” she reiterates, seemingly unable to repeat whatever McGee had said to her.

“Abby!” Ziva bites her bottom lip and opens her arms to her friend, but Abby jumps from the couch and starts shaking her head.

“No, I’m okay,” she insists, even as she wipes away tears. “I’m not the one who—” and then she gasps like she’s remembering it all anew. “I’m going to, uh, I’m going to go,” Abby says almost evenly, almost sedately then points to the door as she finishes. “Jimmy’s out there, I’ll see if he’ll give me a ride home.”

Ziva stands and watches her leaving. “Are you certain, Abby?” she asks to the other woman’s back.

“Of course!” Abby states, but even her walk is wobbly as her tears make their way to her throat. She exits the front door, and Ziva follows her to the threshold, watches long enough to see her say a few words to Jimmy as Tony silently looks on, and then Ziva keeps watching as Abby hops into the passenger seat of Jimmy’s Taurus and the two of them wave goodbye and drive down the road.

Tony finishes stuffing another box of books into the moving van once Abby and Jimmy are out of sight. He calmly walks back to the front door. He twists his body, so he does not have to touch her even where Ziva stands still in the door frame. And then Ziva stops Tony with a hand to his forearm when he would have walked by. Tony tilts his head at her but immediately grabs her back, holding on until she lets go, and Ziva tries to imagine what she would have felt like if Tony would have refused her that small touch as McGee had refused Abby, though she supposes it is not quite the same thing. She wonders what McGee could have said to Abby to make her run away as she did, with shame in her eyes.

They make quick and quiet work of the last remaining items, and soon, there is nothing left of Tim in Lila’s house except for Tim himself. And then, just as they are preparing to go, McGee goes back up to what had been their bedroom and stays there for ten minutes before Ziva takes it upon herself to fetch him. She waits until both Tony and Gibbs step outside again because, despite the fact that McGee would most likely respond best to one of those two men right now, and despite the fact that both men realize this truth, the compulsion Ziva feels to reach out to Tim is too strong to ignore.

He’s sitting on the bed with his back facing the door when Ziva walks in. There are two wide marks on the carpet in front of him where Sarah had directed them an hour ago to remove the McGee family cradle. When she looks down at his hands, Ziva realizes he is holding some pictures.

She sits directly beside him, not quite close enough to touch, but close enough for him to reach her without undue effort should he wish to do so. As per his new norm, Tim doesn’t say a word. However, he does offer her the pair of photographs he is holding in his hands.

The first shows the tiny baby Ziva remembers from his casket. He looks so pale, but his fingers are extended in a very definite demonstration of life. She had known Josh was not stillborn because of the nature of the birth certificate released, but she had not expected to see this. She turns to the next picture to find McGee holding his tiny son in his arms. She almost catches her breath to realize Josh’s fist is wrapped around McGee’s first finger.

“One of the nurses took the pictures on her phone. There are seven of them, but these are the ones where you can really see that he’s alive,” McGee sniffs, nearly shocking her as he speaks so openly. “He lived just over an hour after I got there. I held him the whole time. I was holding him when he died.”

Ziva reaches for his hand, and she laces their fingers. “I am glad you were there with him.”

“Yeah,” McGee sniffles again, his hand remaining lax in hers. “Me, too. I just—Lila didn’t even get to hold him at all. She touched him,” he clarifies, “at the funeral home, but she was unconscious during the c-section and afterwards she wasn’t actually physically able to hold him. He was already dead by the time she saw him, anyway.”

“It is not your fault,” she reminds him gently.

“It’s not anyone’s fault,” he is quick to return.

Ziva tilts her head as she looks at him, “Then why do you feel guilty?”

Tim blinks, and his face crumples, “I,” he shakes his head, knocking a tear loose from his eye. “Why didn’t I go with her that day? I could have, I could have—”

“No,” Ziva contradicts him. “There is no way to know what could have been. We can only ever know what is,” and even she can feel the hollowness to her words.

“He, um, Josh,” McGee speaks his son’s name a little breathlessly, and suddenly his fingers clutch at hers. She clutches right back. “He made this sound every time I touched his face. It, uh, it reminded me of a cat,” he sobs out a chuckle. “And then I think he recognized my voice because when I spoke to him he moved his head like he was trying to move towards me.” Tim squeezes her hand tighter. “I wanted to tell Lila that, but she won’t even talk to me, so I thought if she could see the pictures,” he trails off when he starts weeping.

Ziva lays a hand on the back of Tim’s head, and she pulls him down against her shoulder. It surprises her how readily he comes to her, how much he needs this simple affection. Maybe moreso that he allows her to provide it to him.

“I believe your son lives on in God,” she tells him in Hebrew, unsure whether she could piece the words together if he could actually understand them. Maybe he would not have even been able to hear them anyway beyond the strength of his grief. She holds him tighter, knowing his body will understand the comfort that his mind cannot yet find.

“I am so sorry,” she finally manages to say in English.

 

When Gibbs shuts the front door after Tony and Ducky and the girls Saturday night, taking care to lock it, it’s just him and McGee in the house, just like it’s been for the last two nights. And just like the last two nights—No, the last three weeks—Gibbs can’t think of anything he might say to his young agent.

“Did you get enough to eat?” Gibbs prods gently upon reentering the living room, tilting his chin towards the pizza boxes in the dining room.

Tim nods his head where he stands next to the fireplace, just like Gibbs knew he would.

Gibbs walks over next to Tim. “Come on,” he orders, patting a quick hand to Tim’s shoulder, “Help me clean up from dinner.”

Tim nods again, just as listlessly, then stands to join Gibbs in the dining room. They make quick work of consolidating the remaining pizza slices into a single box and then breaking down all the other boxes to throw them away.

“You should recycle those,” Tim says quietly, startling Gibbs just as he’s about to toss the cardboard into the trash.

“Thought you couldn’t recycle pizza boxes,” Gibbs squints curiously.

Tim shakes his head. “The city won’t take them because of the organic remains on them, but there’s an independent contractor Lila and I use that takes all recyclable materials. They have a community compost for items that can’t be reprocessed directly.” Tim shrugs, “I can take it over to their closest drop off point tomorrow if you want.”

“That’s a good idea, Tim,” Gibbs praises the initiative, is frankly grateful to hear something besides, ‘yes, Boss’ or ‘no, Boss’ or ‘on it, Boss’ coming from Tim’s lips.

Tim nods, then collects the boxes and sets out for the front door. Gibbs follows him into the living room, then just watches by the nearer end of the coffee table while Tim picks up his car keys from the hook and tries to turn the knob. The boy’s brow furrows when he realizes it’s locked. He makes quick work of the latch and steps outside. Gibbs glances out the window, watching Tim carefully lay the pizza boxes in the trunk of his rental, adjusting them this way and that after he places them inside, focusing much too acutely on the simple task.

When Tim walks back into the house, he places his keys back on the hook by the door. He turns, is about to step out of the foyer and up towards the stairs when he stops himself and very carefully turns the lock. He flips the deadbolt, too, then pats the door just above that thick, upper lock.

“This was my job at home,” Tim whispers, still facing the door. “I checked the doors every night after Lila went to bed.” He shakes his head, and one side of his mouth flips up with the idea of a smile. “Lila said it was silly,” he sniffs, “overprotective of me because we always locked the doors whenever we came into the house anyway, but one night I found the front door unlocked when I checked, and I knew right then in that moment,” Tim locks his jaw, and his face pinches up, “that I would keep checking that front door every night for the rest of our lives.” Tim swallows, and it’s so quiet in the house that it seems as loud as if Gibbs were standing right next to him. “Guess I was wrong, huh?” And Tim bites his lip to whiteness and squinches his eyes shut tight for a brief second. He can’t stop the tear that runs down the side of his cheek, but he swipes at it, hard and fast, like he can pretend it’s not there if he gets rid of it fast enough.

And Gibbs’ tongue stalls again because he understands, horribly and miserably and in that bone deep way that makes him ache to ever think about. And God, how he tries to never think about it.

The silence stretches between them, and Gibbs isn’t even sure Tim notices silence anymore, thinks Tim must be screaming too hard inside his head to realize that everything outside it is quiet and still. And as he watches Tim, watches that young kid he remembers from Norfolk eight years ago stiffen his shoulders and blink without seeing, Gibbs feels his own stance widen, as if he can already feel the wind of a storm about to come.

“Does it ever get better, Boss?” Tim’s voice pinches tighter and tighter right up until it breaks, and the words and the tone each seem to make Gibbs’ heart stop. McGee angles his neck, straightens his chin to look Gibbs in the eye, and Gibbs has no idea what’s on his face in that second, but Tim’s head drops right away. “Oh, G-God, I’m s-sorry B-boss, I s-shouldn’t’ve,” he stammers, this boy Gibbs used to know. “I know it’s n-not the s-same. I know K-kelly was, w-was…a-and J-J-Josh w-wasn’t—” Tim breaks off, shaking his head, “I’m s-sorry.” Tim’s chest heaves as he gasps for air, and his hands go back to the lock, but those normally agile fingers can only fumble at the latches they so purposely turned just a moment before.

“Hey, hey. It’s okay, Tim,” and by the time the words come out of Gibbs’ mouth, he’s already beside his agent. “I,” and Gibbs’ tongue fails him again. He clears his throat and sets his hand to span across the base of Tim’s neck. Only then do McGee’s fingers stop trying at the locks, though they do stay connected with the door. “It is the same,” Gibbs starts again. “It’s always the same, and no,” Gibbs shakes his head. “It doesn’t get better,” he confesses quietly, “but it gets bearable,” he promises.

Tim nods, his fingers curling into the wood of the door as his breathing gets more rapid, fighting with the urge to cry.

“It’s okay,” Gibbs shakes him at the neck, and Tim’s body is both stiff and fragile, moving easily but like one solid piece of hollow wood, not like a man at all, under Gibbs’ hand.

“I had so many plans,” Tim exhales the words shakily, still holding onto the door. “We were taking all these night classes—Parenting Techniques, Basics for New Moms and Dads,” and if Tim’d told him a month ago, Gibbs would have smiled at the very thought. Of course, Tim would take classes on how to be a dad. And he would have applied everything he’d learned and so carefully taken notes on during that schooling and then he’d’ve wondered why it didn’t all work out like it was supposed to.

“I started sign language just over a month ago,” Tim continues, “but Lila won’t take it even though the evidence for verbal skills and motor skills is solid, she keeps saying it’s colloquial because there aren’t enough peer reviewed studies, and I keep telling her you have to start somewhere, and then she licks her lips like she does and tells me to teach her to talk to me with her hands and—” he cuts himself off abruptly, and blushes as red as Gibbs has ever seen, his lips stuttering even if nothing comes out.

“And now she won’t even talk to me,” Tim’s voice cracks when he’s finally able to spit some words out again. “How are we supposed to get through this if she won’t even talk to me?” he coughs, choking as he sniffs heavily. “Who’s going to remember Josh if we don’t do it together?” Tim sobs, and when he leans into Gibbs, Gibbs catches him right away, holds him as close as he knows how.

And the promise is there on the tip of his tongue, so Gibbs speaks what he’s thinking, wondering as he does if it’s the worst thing he could say, “We will. We’ll remember Josh. You and I and the team and your parents and Sarah,” Gibbs swears. “It’s not the same,” he acknowledges before Tim might say it, “but we loved Josh, too. We loved him because he was yours.”

“I thought you didn’t really want—” Tim cries and shakes his head into Gibbs’ chest. “I was going to—the Marshals…” he trails off, but it’s not as though he needs to finish. Gibbs had known from the moment Tim introduced the team to Marshal Brown at their crime scene that their relationship was at least as much professional as it was personal.

“Stay with me as long as you want to,” Gibbs tells Tim, hoping the younger man understands he means everything—his house, the team, NCIS, “or leave if you have to,” Gibbs strokes his thumb along Tim’s temple, “but you’ll always be one of mine,” Gibbs vows, “wherever you go.”

And Tim only cries harder, but he throws both arms around Gibbs now, clutches him as tightly as Gibbs holds onto him. Neither man lets go for a long time.

 

Two months later…

It’s a chilly day for late March. Tony’s got the heat on high in the van, and Tim knows he only cranks it up because Tim once told him how much colder he gets now that he’s dropped thirty pounds. He can’t believe Tony actually remembers the one off comment, but the proof of it comes every time they make their way to a crime scene anymore.

There’s no heat on in Rock Creek Park, though, and Tim wishes he’d worn his heavier coat this morning instead of the new one Abby’d gotten him. It’s just that it was so nice to be thought of when she’d surprised him yesterday ‘just because’ as she’d put it, that he wanted to keep the feeling with him for as long as he could. The grin on her face as he wore it into work today made the jacket seem warmer anyway.

Abby’d been doing things like that a lot in the past couple months, and Tim didn’t know why she was doing any of it at all, especially after he’d told her he’d trade every moment they’d ever shared together for just a little more life for his son. It wasn’t fair of him to say to a friend, even if was true. The fact of it is, though, that these small gestures Abby keeps making lately make him feel more loved and appreciated than anything she’d ever said or done for him in the rest of the entire eight years they’d known one another.

Tony takes his hat off his own head and lands it squarely on Tim’s noggin the second the younger man steps under the stretch of tape nearest the body. A moment later, Ziva slaps him in the gut with a pair of gloves that had to have been hiding in the lower left cabinet of the van because no one ever looks in there because you have to lug the mostly unused monster toolcase out of the way to get to it.

Tim grins at both his friends and joins Gibbs by the body at once. The rhythm of the team’s routine fills him with a sense of purpose and satisfaction. It feels so good to have this part of his life back when he thought he’d been removed from it forever. He hadn’t realized how very much he’d missed his team. Even when he was in the thick of preparing the way for Josh with Lila, there’d always been something missing. He doesn’t know how he didn’t realize before, why he didn’t think to go after it.

Of course, now it’s the other half of the equation that’s missing, and Tim feels guilty and incredibly disloyal to his friends, but he knows if he’d had to make that choice himself between his family and his team, then he wouldn’t be here right now.

Ultimately though, he wishes it had never been either/or but both. Tim’s not sure he could ever be entirely happy or content without having both in his life. He wishes he’d known earlier it was all about balance, not about choice.

While Tony and Ziva bicker over who should pick up something that’s apparently hugely disgusting by the sound of the argument and as Palmer wraps up the body, Tim’s phone rings from his breast pocket. He juggles his grip around the crime scene electronics and just manages to yank off a glove so he can get his phone to his ear before the fifth ring.

“McGee,” he squints distractedly as he traps the cell between his ear and his shoulder.

“Tim,” a soft, breathless voice he’d know anywhere speaks in his ear.

“Lolly,” the nickname comes to his lips unbidden.

The word gets Gibbs’ attention at once. He lifts a brow at Tim as if trying to determine if Tim needs backup on a simple phone call. Tim gives him a half smile, warmed at Gibbs’ thought to have his back, but he waves Boss on. Tim’ll probably end up telling him about it on the way home tonight, in any case. Then Tim sets the case of evidence back to the ground near where the body was and gives the phone call his full attention.

“H-how are you?” she asks.

“I’m, uh,” he wants to say ‘good’ but that’s not quite true. “I’m doing all right,” he settles on, and walks a little deeper into the newly budding trees and away from the soft and familiar noises of his team. “How about you?”

“Better,” she tells him. “I wanted to thank you for the pictures,” her words are more tentative than any he’s ever heard from her. And then she whispers, “Of Josh. And, um,” her voice wavers, “I wanted to tell you that I read every letter and email you sent, and I’m so sorry. For all of it.”

“Lila,” he bites his lip because he’ll take an apology for the last three months, but he won’t accept one for the accident itself. “I never blamed you for it,” the soft words just make it past his lips, but he can’t seem to bite out the phrase car crash.

“But you should have,” she insists.

“I never will,” he promises.

The silence stretches between them a moment, and Tim just wishes he could see her, wishes he could convince her of his words with his whole body.

“I thought,” Lila starts and stalls. “I thought maybe I could buy you coffee sometime,” she finishes with tears in her voice.

“No,” he shakes his head and smiles at the memory, “but you can join me.”

That sweet chuckle he loves so much gets braided with relief as it comes across the line.

“Are you busy tonight?” Lila asks, tone still tentative despite the laugh between them.

“Mmm,” he winces. “We just caught a case.”

“Oh, right, okay,” and he can almost see that nervous nod she gets. “Maybe another day.”

“No!” he comes back quickly, afraid she’ll lose her nerve, or he will, between then and now. “I mean, Boss will probably let me get away for a little while, though I probably won’t be able to give you much lead time. I mean if that’s—”

“No, no, no! That’s okay!” Lila’s quick to interrupt, and it soothes his nerves a pinch to know something might yet remain between them.

“You could always come to the Yard if you want,” he leads, knowing it’s probably not the best combination to jump right into but desperately needing his worlds to merge nonetheless.

“I thought you didn’t want me coming there?” and it seems as though there’s a lot of weight behind her question.

He licks his lips, knowing she’s asking something beyond the obvious. “I changed my mind,” he tells her.

“Yeah?” he hears her smile in that word and can’t help but to smile back.

“Yeah,” Tim confirms.

“Okay,” Lila sniffles, but the noise almost sounds satisfied somehow. “I could bring you lunch from that deli you like near the dry cleaners.”

“Ooh, that turkey sandwich with the—”

“The extra sweet pickles and mustard,” she interrupts. “I know.”

Tim tilts his head, imaging that soft look she gets about her when she gets lost in a good memory. “Twelve-thirty will probably work if that’s okay.”

“I’ll see you then,” Lila confirms.

He closes the phone and slides it back into his pocket. When he turns around, Tony and Ziva are practically wringing their hands as they straddle listening range of his conversation. The laugh bubbles up from deep inside Tim at the sight.

“That was Lila,” Tim confirms as he walks closer to them, and Tony nods desperately, and the senior agent’s actually, sincerely biting his tongue, but he doesn’t push Tim at all for any details. Tim offers them anyway. “She’s bringing me lunch at the Yard later.”

“Yeah?” Tony ducks his chin, scanning Tim’s features for whatever reaction he thinks wouldn’t be readily apparent at this news. “So do you think, maybe…”

“I don’t know,” Tim shrugs. “But I’m not gonna rule it out.”

Ziva smiles at him, and Tim knows it’s an honest reflection of his own happiness back at him. “I have to get this back to Ducky before he leaves,” she gestures with Ducky’s liver thermometer, which just eww, Tim does not want to know. Then she runs off for the ME van.

“Oh, hey,” Tony says as they go back towards the crime scene van. “Did I tell you about that yoga class I’m checking out? I signed up because of the serious hottie it had for a teacher, but I really think I’m already more flexible, which,” he waggles his brows, “is useful in a myriad of situations,” Tony finishes sedately.

“Hmm,” Tim can’t hold back his grin at both the sex story Tony so obviously wants to tell him and the fact that he doesn’t in order to maintain Tim’s sensibilities about privacy. Tim finds he doesn’t mind as much as he used to about the whole privacy thing, though. Maybe it’s because Tony’s okay with him not offering any details back or maybe it’s because it doesn’t feel like Tony’s telling somebody else’s secrets so much anymore as it seems kind of obvious he just wants to share his own with Tim. Or maybe it’s just that it’s Tony inviting these intimacies that it seems okay. Hard to say.

“You know,” Tim says under the privacy of the trees to his best friend, the words just popping out of his mouth and in between the two of them as if they were always meant to, “Lolly—I,” he clears his throat. “It’s short for lollipop,” he confesses, and Tim knows how incredibly vague his phrasing is, but, the truth is, he still doesn’t want to relate the intimate details of what happened between him and Lolly to anyone, he only now wants to share with Tony the significance behind those private moments.

Tony stalls, brows high on his forehead, and thank God for Tony’s dirty mind because it’s obvious that he gets it immediately and thankfully without Tim actually having to use the word ‘blowjob’. “I take it she’s a fan. Of lollipops.” Tony levels his gaze at Tim, and McGee can see him trying so hard not to grin madly at the confidence.

“The biggest, most enthusiastic fan I have ever met,” Tim finishes, lips curling like he can’t even begin to contain them.

“Good Catholic girl?” Tony guesses then presses his lips together hard.

Tim shakes his head. “Very, very bad Catholic girl,” he returns slyly.

Tony chuckles wildly, finally completely losing the battle with his grin, and Tim’s laughing right there with him, and their shared laughter feels light and purely joyful, like it was always supposed to.

And everything might be changing for Tim, but all of a sudden, it’s a normal day even if it is a new kind of normal, and Tim may not know what’s coming next, doesn’t even really know what he wants yet, but at least he knows now who’s at his back.

END