He spends his first Christmas after leaving NCIS alone.
It’s mid-October when he buys the old hunting cabin, high up on the mountain. He moves in with just a rucksack full of clothes, a photo of Shannon and Kelly, and a few books.
At the base of the mountain is a supply store for hikers, hunters and campers, but it also serves as the local store for the residents of the mountain; it seems to sell just about everything.
He stocks up on what he needs, loads it into his truck, and drives back up the mountain to his new home.
The place is basic – one bedroom, a big living room, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. There’s a large storeroom outside, and he has his own generator.
He’s just finished carefully storing away all the lumber he bought when he hears a truck pulling up outside. He straightens, frowning. One of the reasons he bought this place, so high up on the mountain, was because he specifically didn’t want any visitors.
He goes outside to find a woman jumping out of a big silver truck. She slams the door shut loudly, turns, and sees him.
“Hey there!” She’s got a Southern accent and bright green eyes. “I’m Emmylou Jacobsen. I live beneath you all the way down there.” She points back down the mountain. “So I guess I’m your closest neighbour!”
“Gibbs,” he growls, taking the hand she’s offering and giving it one terse pump of greeting.
She’s about five foot two, mid forties, with long red hair tied behind her head in a no-nonsense ponytail.
“That it? You got a first name?”
Great. Just what he needs – a feisty, petite redhead living nearby; he’s all too aware of his track record with that particular species.
She laughs. “Well, I can see why you’d wanna keep that quiet, Jethro.”
He instinctively likes her. She’s warm and strong, and he can tell just by looking at her that she’s got balls of steel.
“I stopped by for coffee. Being neighbourly.” She glances into the storeroom and surveys the lumber.
“Or nosy,” he grunts.
She laughs again. “That too!” She pushes past him and walks into his house without being invited. He should mind, but somehow he doesn’t. He’s always been a sucker for women who take no shit from him.
She goes into his kitchen and finds two mugs. She pours them both a cup of coffee from the permanent brew he keeps going.
“Make yourself at home,” he mutters caustically as she hands him a cup of the strong, steaming coffee
She shrugs. “Look, sweetheart, I’ve lived on this mountain for ten years. I know that if you wait for an invite from the strong, silent types this place attracts then you’ll be stone cold in your grave before you set one foot inside anyone’s house. I just like to cut the crap and get to the point.”
“Which is?” He raises an eyebrow.
“Winter. You ready for it? ‘Cause once the big snows come you’ll be stuck up here all alone for a couple of months, maybe more, depending on how bad the winter is this year.”
“I'm counting on it.”
She nods. “I thought so – but I had to put my mind at rest by asking. I’d worry about you all alone up here, being a newcomer and all, if I hadn’t asked.”
He finally gives her a smile, and she does a double take. “Wow, aren’t you a handsome fella when you’re not being grouchy!”
That even makes him laugh, and she laughs with him.
“I’ve got enough food to last me six months if need be, and I can hunt if I’m getting low,” he tells her.
“You a good shot?” She quirks an enquiring eyebrow, and he gives an amused grunt.
“I get by.”
She grins. “'Get by' he says! Your name is Leroy Jethro Gibbs, and you worked for years as a federal agent in some place with a lot of initials instead of a name, and before that you were a sniper in the Marines. I guess you’re also a master of understatement.”
It’s his turn to quirk an enquiring eyebrow now.
“Like you said, I’m nosy. And I like to know who my neighbours are. Up here, you need to know you can rely on folk in an emergency.” She gives him an assessing look. “And I think I can rely on you, Jethro.”
“You can.” He gives her a nod and then moves in fast, taking her by surprise. “But I came up here for peace and quiet. Don’t like the idea of anyone knowing my business. Understand?”
She holds his stare, not looking the least bit intimidated. “Look, I’m nosy but I’m not a blabbermouth. I won’t tell a soul who you are, or what you were, if that's how you want it."
“It’s none of my business why you’re here, anyway," she says. "Hell, I know the kinds of people who come and live high up on the mountain - we’re all running away from something, aren’t we? Hiding ourselves away up here, out of sight!”
Is that what he’s doing? Running away? Maybe it is. He's never viewed himself as a coward, but a lot has changed in the last year.
“I just want to make sure you can handle the winter,” she continues. “Have you got a satellite phone? When the weather’s bad, communications often go down.”
“Yup.” He nods his head in the direction of the phone.
“Good. Canned food? Warm clothes? Your generator in good working order?”
“Yup to all of that.”
“Know how to ski in case it snows so much you can’t walk around?”
“Fine…then I’ve only got one more question.”
He quirks an eyebrow again.
“What the hell are you planning on doing alone up here all damn winter?”
He gives a wry little smile. “I’ll be fine.”
She nods, thoughtfully. “You know, honey, I believe you.”
She pushes past him out of the kitchen and walks into the living room…and then stops.
“Wow…you sure do like travelling light!” she exclaims, gazing around the empty room. “Don’t you have any furniture?” She glances into the bedroom, which is also completely empty – he’s laid out his bedroll on a rug on the floor, just like the old days, back in the Marines. At some point he intends to buy a mattress, but he hasn't gotten around to it yet.
“Nope.” He shakes his head.
“I hate to think of you up here all alone without even a chair to sit on!” she exclaims.
He leans against the wall. “Well, you asked me what I was going to do all winter.”
She opens her mouth in surprise, and he nods in the direction of the outside store where the lumber is.
“Oh! You’re going to make your own furniture?” She looks flabbergasted. “All of it? By hand?”
“Like you said, I could be stuck up here all alone for a couple of months.” He shrugs. "So there'll be plenty of time."
“I’m impressed. I like a man who’s good with his hands!” She’s flirting with him shamelessly now, but he likes her enough not to mind. “At least you’ve got some rugs even if they are the ugliest rugs I ever saw,” she comments, glancing at the rugs he picked up cheap. They'll do the job – he didn't need them to be pretty. “You’d freeze to death on just bare boards when it gets really cold.”
She sees the picture of Shannon and Kelly, standing on the floor next to his bed, and she goes over to it and picks it up.
“What a darling little girl! Is she your daughter?”
“Yeah.” He can feel his throat constrict, the way it always does when he thinks about Kelly.
“She’s a little beauty. Where does she live now? Will she be coming to visit?”
“No.” He takes the picture firmly from her hands and puts it back where it was.
She glances at him, a shrewd look in her green eyes. “Does she live with her mom? Did you guys get divorced? Is that why you’ve come out here all alone?”
“Oh.” There’s something about her expression that makes him think that’s what happened to her – a bad divorce that sent her running all the way to this place. With that accent, she sure as hell isn’t local. “Well, maybe your little girl will come and visit in the spring.” She pats his arm.
“Unlikely,” he growls. “She’s been dead for twenty years.”
He doesn’t relish the look of shock in her eyes, but he’s glad it’s out in the open if they’re going to be neighbours. It's not information he usually shares, but he's different now.
"Looks like your research on me wasn’t thorough enough,” he adds, and it comes out more bitterly than he intended.
“Jethro, I’m sorry. Really, I only asked the realtor about your name and your job and any scraps of gossip he had about you. I never…”
She looks at a loss for words, and he’s sure that’s something she’s not used to. He remembers telling the realtor some basic information about himself when the sale was going through and making some small talk about hunting and his days in the Marines. Emmylou hasn’t dug more deeply than that.
“It’s okay. It was a long time ago.”
“And your wife?” she asks softly, glancing at Shannon in the photograph.
“Died in the same…car wreck.” There’s no way he’s going to tell her about Hernandez and that their deaths weren’t an accident.
“That’s terrible. I’m so sorry.” She pats his arm again. “Now look, Jethro, if you need anything, anything at all, then you just holler. I’m some ways down the road but you can’t miss me – my house is painted blue!”
He nods, remembering the blue house he passes on his drive up and down the mountain.
“You’re the farthest up this old beast of a mountain,” she says. “That damn road out there is too steep and too narrow and when the really big snows come, it's impassable. I won’t be able to reach you, but we can email and…”
“No computer,” he says gruffly.
“On my! You really are a dinosaur!” She shakes her head in disapproval, and it reminds him suddenly and vividly of McGee. He turns away, swallowing hard.
“Never liked the damn things,” he mutters. His hands are shaking a little, and he hopes she’ll go soon.
“Oh, you just need to be shown how to use one properly.”
“No, I damn well don’t,” he growls. His hands are shaking harder now, and he needs her to leave. “Look, I didn’t ask you to come here, nosing around. I came up here to get away from that kind of crap.”
She looks at him for a long moment, and he knows she's seen his shaking hands. He struggles to control himself and not give in to it.
She nods. “You’re right. I’ve overstayed my welcome. I like plain talkers, Jethro; you and I will get along just fine.”
She leans forward and presses a little kiss to the side of his face. It’s far too familiar, far too soon for that kind of gesture, but somehow it warms him a little. He knows she has a good heart; she means well.
“I’ll visit again soon. And if you want to call on me, you know where I am.”
She casts another little glance at the photograph of Shannon and Kelly and then turns and leaves.
He’s glad when she’s gone, and he can stop trying to control it. Controlling it doesn’t work, but he hates surrendering to it all the same.
He waits until he hears her truck pulling away, and then he allows the shaking to consume him. Sometimes he’s not sure what sets it off. It can be the smallest thing – or nothing he can identify at all. This time he knows it was thinking about McGee. It was only a brief moment, but it brought back memories.
The waves of anxiety sweep through his body, making him sweat. He can feel the moisture dripping down his face, hanging on the edge of his unshaven jaw and then falling onto his shirt.
He gets down on his knees and wraps his arms across his belly, his entire body shaking, and that’s when the flashback starts.
He’s in the elevator, coffee in his hand. It’s late evening, and he’s returning from a meeting at Quantico. Now he’s back at the Navy Yard, riding the elevator up to the squad room like he’s done a thousand times before.
The explosion is like nothing he’s heard in his life, not even when he was blown up in Kuwait. The metal walls of the elevator take most of the shock, but he’s blown backwards. His coffee spills out everywhere, scalding his hand, and he comes to rest on his back against the far wall. He's lucky that the elevator took the brunt of the blast – and that its cable held firm, instead of sending him hurtling to his death.
He hears the sound of the explosion over and over again, reverberating through his head in the immediate aftermath. Everything has gone dark…and for a long moment there’s silence, made all the more shocking by the huge bang that preceded it. And then it’s broken by a sound he’ll never forget: a scream of agony.
The shaking subsides. Gibbs crouches there for a long time, breathing heavily, waiting for it to pass completely. He has no control over the flashbacks; they seem entirely random. One minute he can be pouring himself a mug of coffee, and the next he’s on his knees on the floor, sobbing like a baby.
He hates the feeling of weakness he gets after one of these episodes. He sits down, back against the wall, and wipes a hand across his face. It comes away covered in the sweat that's pouring off him. He's still shaking a little, but he hauls himself to his feet and forces himself to walk out to the storeroom. He won't let this beat him. It might have him by the balls right now, but it won't win.
He grabs some lumber and takes it back into the cabin. Then he goes and gets his toolkit.
Working wood always did calm him. It’s the best thing he can do to get his head straight again.
He thinks about what to work on first and decides, after his conversation with Emmylou, that the bed is his most pressing need.
He thought up a design a week ago and drew a rough pencil sketch on the back of an envelope. He retrieves it now and studies it. Then he turns back to the wood and strokes it with his fingers; he’s starting to feel better already.
It makes a change to be working on something other than a boat. He likes it. Emmylou stops by occasionally over the next few weeks to check on his progress, and it reminds him of all the unexpected visits he used to get in his basement from various members of his team while he was working on one of his boats down there. He enjoys breaking off to have a mug of coffee with her. He doesn’t feel lonely but all the same, some human contact is nice.
The snows come, not so heavy that the road is impassable, but he can see how it gets that way. Gibbs likes the way the snow blankets the ground, making everything seem muffled and even quieter than usual.
He finishes the bed on Christmas Eve. It’s big and solid, and he’s given it the kind of fancy details he never really bothered with when he was building boats. He’s carved little oak leaves and acorns into the headboard, and finds he likes them more than he'd expected.
Emmylou arrives just as he finishes assembling it in the bedroom.
“Looks good. When you said you were gonna hand-make all your furniture, I admit I was sceptical.” She grins at him.
“Oh ye of little faith.”
She helps him haul his new mattress onto the bed, and then he sits down, testing it out. It feels sturdy and well made, and he's proud of it.
Emmylou sits down beside him and gives the bed an approving pat. “You did good, Jethro! Only one thing though…”
“What?” He’s pretty sure that the bed is as damn near perfect as can be.
“It’s a mighty big bed for one person. Were you expecting company up here, Jethro? Have you got some fancy woman you never told me about?”
Her green eyes are flashing with laughter. He doesn’t want to remember another pair of green eyes that always flashed with laughter. His mood changes, becoming sullen, and he gets up and looks out of the window.
“Snow’s getting heavy,” he says.
“Yeah – right on time. Usually gets this way around Christmas. It’s not so bad where I live, further down the mountain. The road's better down there so we usually only get cut off once or twice in the winter, but up here…” Emmylou gets up and glances out of the window too. “I guess I'd better be going home, or you’ll be stuck with me all winter.”
She gives a rueful smile that suggests she wouldn't mind that and presses a kiss to his cheek, the way she always does when she says goodbye. She gently brushes the hair away from his forehead and traces the scar there with her fingertips. He lets her. He isn’t sure why.
“Merry Christmas, Jethro. You enjoy the winter, y’hear?” she says softly. “I’ll see you again in a couple of months.”
She goes over to the door, then pauses and looks back. “That is one mighty fine bed you’ve built there!” she says, and then she’s gone.
He piles the bedding onto the new bed and sleeps in it that night for the first time.
There’s a storm during the night and outside the wind blows through the trees, making all kinds of strange sounds. Maybe that's why he wakes up at just gone 3 a.m., covered in sweat, panting hard.
He’s back in the elevator, listening to the sound of someone screaming in pain, coming from the direction of the squad room. He knows immediately that a bomb has exploded, and his first concern is to see if he can help the other survivors.
He checks himself out, but he seems to have got off relatively lightly. He can feel blood running down his face from a gash in his forehead, but it isn’t life threatening. The screaming from the squad room continues, slicing through the air with pained intensity…and then suddenly it stops.
He hauls himself through the service hatch in the elevator ceiling and from there he's able to drag himself into the squad room.
There are no lights and the place is in darkness. He wonders if any of his people were still at their desks when the bomb went off. They were wrapping up a case so they might have gone home…but he does always insist that they file their paperwork before clocking off, so it’s possible they were still finishing up their reports. He hopes they’re gone. He hopes this is the one time they didn’t stay late to keep him off their backs, and that they’ve left the building.
He fleetingly considers the reasons why the bomb went off so late – it would have caught more people if whoever had planted it had set it to detonate during the morning work hours. Maybe they had. Maybe it failed to go off then. Or maybe someone else was the target…wasn’t Vance due to have a meeting with SecNav and the Director of Homeland Security this evening? That meeting had been scheduled to take place at the Pentagon, but had been switched just a couple of days ago to the Navy Yard. Who knew about that switch?
The investigator in him is curious, but he doesn’t have time to think that through because he needs to find out if any of his team has been hurt. There is a bank of acrid smoke in the building, chokingly thick. He gets down on his belly and crawls in the direction of his desk. He can feel the hot air burning in his lungs, making it hard to breathe.
He comes across something lying in his path. It’s a body. He pauses…it could be one of his people. He places a finger on its neck. No pulse. Dead.
He has to know if it’s one of his team. The body is face down, but he can just about make out that it’s a man…in a suit. Could be either McGee or…
He isn’t prepared for the stabbing sensation he feels in his gut when he thinks it might be Tony. It can’t be Tony. Not after all this time. Not after working together, side by side, for so many years. Not Tony. Anyone but Tony. He knows that they're all his team, and he should care about them all equally, but the truth is that he doesn’t. It's not a truth you discover until a moment like this.
He forces himself to heave the body onto its back and peer at its face in the darkness.
It’s not Tony. It isn’t McGee, either, but he can’t think beyond Not Tony. The relief is palpable.
He can hear the rasping sound of his own laboured breathing. He lies in the bed, gazing sightlessly at the ceiling, waiting for the after-effects of the flashback to pass. When the worst of it is over, he goes to the bathroom and grabs a towel to wipe the sweat off his body. Then he gets himself a mug of coffee and pauses to look out of the window. The storm is in full force, and it’s blowing up a gale out there.
He climbs back into bed, grabs one of the books beside it, puts his glasses on, and starts reading.
It takes a couple of hours before he feels calm enough to sleep again. He wishes he could force his body to obey him, the way he has for so many years, but that's changed now, like so many things.
It’s dawn on Christmas morning when he finally gets to sleep again.
The storm is still blowing when he wakes up a few hours later. He pulls on his bathrobe and walks into the living room. He throws a couple of logs onto the fire to get it going, relishing the solitude.
“You have a lot of issues to work through,” that damn idiot of a shrink told him a few months ago, but he prefers to think of it as listening to his gut. And his gut told him he needed to go to ground and find a place where he could have complete peace and quiet. That’s sure as hell what he’s got up here.
It's a strange kind of Christmas Day, but then Christmas always was a difficult time of year for him. He glances at the photo of Shannon and Kelly and smiles at them.
“Semper fi,” he says to the photograph, and they smile back at him, caught forever in that one moment in the past, in their back yard at Alexandria. Shannon has her arms around Kelly, and they're always smiling, forever young and happy.
He spends that first Christmas after leaving NCIS all alone in his cabin high up in the mountains, and when the thaw comes, it brings Emmylou with it.
“You survived then?” She sticks her head around the door and then whistles as she surveys the living room, which is now filled with a small couch, a dining table, and two dining chairs. “Wow, you did have a good winter!” She steps inside and goes over to the dining table. “Two chairs?” She raises an eyebrow.
“Well, you never know when someone is going to stop by.” He kisses her cheek, genuinely happy to see her after the months of solitude, and she smiles a bright, happy smile.
"It's a good thing I bought us both a belated Christmas dinner then!" She points to the basket she’s carrying with a wink.
She's brought a side of beef that makes his mouth water just looking at it. She bustles around the kitchen, talking to him, telling him all about her winter. He stands there, leaning against the wall, letting her chatter wash over him.
When the beef is done she removes it from the oven, and the aroma of roasting meat fills the room. Suddenly, without any warning, he's back in the past again.
He pushes the corpse out of the way and crawls over to where he's sure Tony's desk should be. It's been blown completely away – he can dimly see it sticking out of the broken window to the left of where Tony usually sits.
"Tony?" he calls, his voice sounding croaky in the smoke-filled room.
"Tony – you here?" he asks again, louder this time. He hears movement and makes for a bank of rubble and the remains of the filing cabinet that used to stand beside Tony's desk.
There's a body there, half sticking out of the rubble, legs trapped. As he watches, the body moves. He crawls over there as quickly as he can.
"Tony?" He traces his fingers over a torn shirt, and hears a low, gasping moan of pain.
"Boss?" The sound is so faint he can barely make it out, but there's no mistaking the voice.
His eyes are becoming accustomed to the dark, or maybe the smoke is clearing a little. He can just about make out Tony's smoke-blackened face through the gloom. He leans in close, trying to assess the situation and find out how badly Tony is injured.
"How ya doing, DiNozzo? Where does it hurt?"
"Everywhere?" There's a hint of a twisted little smile on Tony's lips. Gibbs glances at Tony's legs – they're completely trapped beneath the rubble – it'll take more than just him to haul Tony out.
"Who else was in here with you when the bomb went off?" Gibbs asks.
"Bomb…that what it was?" Tony's eyes are hazy and unfocussed.
Gibbs grabs his chin. "Stay with me, DiNozzo. Who else was here? Ziva? McGee?"
Tony's tiny shake of his head is almost imperceptible. "Gone…" His lips are so dry and cracked that the word barely emerges. "Home."
"You should have gone too, DiNozzo. What the hell were you playing at, staying so late?"
Tony gives a rasping little laugh and a bubble appears on his lips. "Report to finish…Boss. You'd have had…my ass… if I'd left before…it was done."
Tony's right about that. Gibbs tries to figure out where the worst of his injuries are but it's too damn dark, and Tony is barely conscious enough to be much help.
He leans forward, checking down Tony's body for any obvious signs of bleeding. He can smell something…something almost familiar, like roasting meat…and then he sees Tony's hand and arm, burnt red and black…
Gibbs comes to, to find Emmylou still talking away. The smell of roasting meat fills his nostrils, and he doesn't have time to make an excuse. He runs outside and gets there just in time before throwing up, spectacularly, all over the slushy remains of the snow in his yard.
"Hey…my cooking's never had this effect on anyone before," a voice behind him says, and he can feel Emmylou stroking his back comfortingly as he hurls again.
He doesn't know why it’s affected him so much this time. He's cooked meat for himself plenty of times without this happening.
When he's done throwing up, he straightens, pushes her away, and walks unsteadily back into the cabin. He goes into the bathroom, shuts the door firmly behind him, and then goes over to the basin and splashes cold water on his face. He's still shaking, and he doesn't want to go out there again yet. He spends some time brushing his teeth, willing his body to quit letting him down.
Finally he's composed enough to go back out into the living room. He sits down on the couch, and Emmylou sits down beside him, not saying a word.
He doesn't exactly know how it happens, but one minute she's leaning towards him, and the next she’s kissing him. He doesn’t push her away. Maybe it's easier than explaining anything, or maybe he figures it was always going to happen, so they might as well get it out of the way.
Whatever the reason, he finds himself kissing her back. He pushes her back onto the couch, his fingers sliding under her sweater. She laughs into the kiss and puts her hand in the centre of his chest, shoving him away.
"Now hold your horses, cowboy! If this is going where I think it's going, then I am not making out on a couch like a teenager. No offence, Jethro, but you made this couch too small for that!"
That’s fine by him. He’s never liked making love anywhere but in a bed anyway. She gets up and pulls him into the bedroom, and the next couple of hours are lost in the blessed distraction of skin on skin.
He loses himself in the familiarity of a curtain of red hair sweeping across his face as he makes love to her. He knows that he's just looking for a way to regain some trust in his own body, and that she's…convenient. He'd feel bad about it, but he knows she's using him too, in her own way.
Making love is something he was always good at, and he starts to feel better as he brings them both to climax. In this, at least, he knows that his body won't let him down.
Later, she wraps herself up in his bathrobe, and they eat the dinner that's now gone cold but tastes good all the same.
When she leaves, he sees the hopeful glow in her eyes that he's seen countless times before, and he hates the fact that he already knows how this will end when it's only just got started.
Spring and summer on the mountain are beautiful. He often goes out walking. He swims, naked, in the deep, clear lake nearby. The water is freezing cold, even in mid-summer, but he likes how invigorated it makes him feel. Sometimes he hunts, but he always eats what he kills. He’s never understood those who only do it for sport.
The mountain is busy in the summer. Tourists, campers, hikers, hunters…he can’t go for a walk without bumping into someone out there. He misses the solitude of the winter months, but he’s polite enough to the people he encounters. He’s not yet ready to face the world again, but he finds that he doesn’t mind human company as much as he thought he would. He likes hanging out at the store too, talking to the old guys who can be found perpetually playing chess on the porch, and to Max, the owner.
He sees Emmylou occasionally. Sometimes she comes over to his place for dinner followed by sex, and sometimes he goes over to hers for the same. They don't have a routine – he doesn't want to get into one, and she's not asking for one. She doesn't ask for anything save what he's prepared to give, and that's why it lasts as long as it does.
Her place is a lot more homely than his. She thinks his place lacks a woman’s touch, but he likes it just the way it is: Sparse. Tidy.
He’s surprised to find he’s starting to view it that way; he thought it would take longer.
He doesn't let her move anything in – he wants to keep it as his place. It's a lot like whatever it is that they have between them. He doesn't let her in there, either.
In that respect it's just like every other relationship he's had since Shannon died. He's lost count of the number of feisty redheads who took up the challenge that is Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
They all, in some way, thought they could change him. They moved in on him, full of energy and a belief in their own powers of attraction. Each one thought that she was the one who could chip away at that ice cold heart of his, thaw him out, and make him her own. They all believed that they would succeed where others before them had failed. And they were all wrong.
They slept in his bed, dined at his table, and some of them even took his name and moved into his house, but they all had something in common and it wasn't just the red hair: They all eventually gave up and left. And he never tried to stop them.
Emmylou comes up for dinner the week before Christmas, a few days before the big snow is forecast. He can see the unasked question in her eyes all through the meal, and he knows what's coming.
After dinner she goes over to the window and looks out. It snowed a few days ago, but the road isn't impassable yet.
"Won't be long before you’re cut off again," she says.
"Yup." He gets up and starts clearing away the plates.
She clears her throat and then turns to look at him. "So…I was thinking...there's no need for you to be alone during the big freeze. You could come down to my place…or I could stay here."
He puts the plates down and considers his words carefully, but she's already seen the answer in his eyes.
"Or not," she says quickly. "It's just…I need someone in my life who's gonna be *in* my life, Jethro, not just passing through."
"So, I'm saying, if we aren't spending the winter together, that when the spring comes you're more than welcome to visit – but the bedroom door will remain shut."
"That's more than fair, Emmylou. And you're right – you do deserve better."
"I didn't say that…" she begins, but he goes over there and pulls her into a hug.
"You really do," he whispers into her red hair. "I'm not for you, Em. I never was."
She draws back and looks at him. "Oh, Jethro, I knew that the minute I met you. Whatever happened to you, it screwed you up bad."
She's seen him at his most vulnerable; shaking, puking, and screaming out the nightmares, but he never did tell her what they were about. He knows she's jumped to her own conclusions.
She glances over his shoulder at the photo of Shannon and Kelly that he's placed on the shelves he recently made.
"You know, sweetheart, you really do have to get over them one day," she tells him.
"I know that.” He gives a rueful little half-smile because the truth is he kind of has, and he never thought that would happen.
"Then you need to get on and start living, ‘cause life's passing you by. What the hell are you waiting for, Jethro?"
Her eyes are puzzled, but he can't give her the answer. He can barely give it to himself. He just leans in and gently kisses her cheek.
She draws him in and holds him for a moment, her hands making little sweeping motions over his back. Then she clears her throat and pulls away, wiping her fingers over her eyes.
"Well, I'll be going then, honey. I'll see you next year. You take good care of yourself, y'hear?"
When she's gone, he finds he doesn't really miss her at all.
A few days later, he's making his final stop at the store before the big snow arrives when one of the locals comes in with a sack and puts it on Max’s counter. It’s sodden, crusted with ice…and Gibbs notices that it's moving.
"What the hell have you got there, Cliff?" Max asks, prodding the sack suspiciously.
"Just fished it out of the river," the old guy replies. "Five of ‘em in there. They were all dead except this one, poor little critters."
Max opens the sack and pulls out a tiny, wet mound of half-frozen black and tan fur. The puppy moves its head and gazes around with bleary blue eyes. It can't be more than two or three weeks old.
"Don't suppose it'll last much longer," Cliff says. "But I thought someone might want it. I can't keep it – Sarah can't stand the smell of dogs."
"I'll take it," one of the hunters says. He's a big guy, taller than Gibbs, and has enough weaponry to take out a small army rather than a few wild animals up on the mountain. "It'll make good bait."
His face breaks into a macabre grin, and he grabs the puppy by the scruff of its neck. It lets out a pathetic little squeaking sound, and Gibbs isn't aware of making a decision, or of striding forward, but the next thing he knows he's caught the guy's wrist in his hand and is clamping down hard with his fingers.
"Drop it," he orders. "It’s mine."
"What the fuck…?" The guy turns, clearly looking for a fight. Gibbs doesn't move. He just faces him down with utter stillness and a look in his eyes that dares the bastard to make his day by starting a fight. The hunter wilts. "Okay, okay. Let go of my damn wrist. Jesus!"
Gibbs releases his grasp, and the hunter drops the puppy onto the counter and immediately cradles his wrist to his chest. Gibbs picks up the pup, opens his jacket, and sticks the little creature inside against the warmth of his chest. He can feel its cold, damp fur through his shirt. He grabs some extra things he’ll need for the puppy and throws them on the counter along with his other supplies. Nobody says a word as he pays for it all and then strides out to his truck.
When he gets home, he wraps the puppy up in a blanket and puts it in front of the fire. He heats up some milk and improvises a teat, then picks up the puppy and sits it on a towel on his lap, trying to feed it. At first, the puppy seems more dead than alive, but he manages to get some food down it.
He very much doubts it'll last the night, but he rouses himself every couple of hours to force more warm milk down the pup's throat.
He's surprised when he wakes up in the morning to find that the puppy is warm, wriggling, and very much alive. The little creature proves the point by peeing on the towel. The pee seeps through to his pants, and Gibbs gives an amused grunt and looks down into a pair of curious blue eyes.
"Guess we're stuck with each other then," he says.
The pup yawns and stretches, and Gibbs rolls it onto its back to discover it's a boy. He strokes the puppy's tummy gently with his finger, and the little creature gives a sigh of contentment and promptly falls asleep again. Gibbs is not so much of a bastard that he can bring himself to move him, even though he really wants to go and change his pants.
When the big snow comes a few days later, it's just him and the pup, sitting by the fire, waiting out the winter.
Shannon always said he was good with small creatures, and it's true. They like him, and he likes them. It doesn't matter if it's babies, toddlers, cats or dogs. They just take to him. Maybe it's because of his capacity for stillness, or the fact that he doesn't coo over them or sentimentalise them. He takes them for what they are, and they love him for it.
He decides not to name the puppy until he's sure he’s going to make it. If the puppy thrives, then Gibbs is sure the right name will come along without him having to think about it too hard.
Slowly, day-by-day, the puppy responds to his tender care. He gets bigger, his tummy bulging like a little barrel, and begins chewing on Gibbs's fingers when he's being fed. Before long, he's been weaned and is tearing around the place like a lunatic.
Gibbs spends his second Christmas day on the mountain all alone save for the company of one small puppy.
After lunch, he's sitting reading in the living room when it occurs to him that the puppy has been suspiciously quiet for a long time. He goes into his bedroom to find him sitting on the bed, chewing on one of his slippers. The puppy looks up at him with an expression of such combined devotion and mischief in his eyes that it reminds him vividly of someone else…
And he's instantly back in the squad room in the aftermath of the bomb.
He's fairly sure Tony has internal injuries, and who the hell knows what condition his legs are in beneath the rubble. Gibbs can't do anything for him though; Tony needs an ER doctor and proper medical aid. He needs to be rescued.
Gibbs peers through the smoky squad room, trying to see if there are any other people still alive in here. It's late so it's unlikely many people were around when the bomb went off, and he can only see the body he encountered earlier. He glances up at the dangling staircase, hanging loose in midair, wondering if Vance, SecNav and the Director of Homeland Security made it out of there alive. Judging by the damage up there, it doesn't look likely.
He's sure rescue is on its way – an explosion that big hasn't gone unnoticed - but it occurs to him that if his cell phone is working he can at least tell them where to look for survivors. He pulls it out of his pocket – it seems unharmed, and he's almost hopeful until he sees the 'no service' message. He bites back a curse and stuffs it back into his pocket again.
He could try and find a way out of here. At least then he could find someone and bring them back here to help Tony.
"Tony…" He looks down to find that Tony has lost consciousness again. He pats his face firmly. "DiNozzo!" he says, in a louder voice.
Tony's eyelids flicker. "Boss? Did I…fall…asleep again?"
Gibbs can hear the rasping sound of his breathing – and that's when he remembers Tony's plague-scarred lungs. It must be twice as hard for Tony to breathe in all this smoky air as it is for him, and he's finding it hard enough.
"Tony…I need to go get help."
Tony's eyes grow a little dimmer. "Leaving me?"
"I gotta go tell them where you are. You'll be fine. I won't be long. Okay?"
"Okay…Boss." Tony closes his eyes again.
Gibbs is about to crawl away when he hesitates. Logic tells him this is the best thing to do, but his gut isn't happy with his decision. His gut says that if he leaves now he'll never see Tony alive again.
He struggles with himself and then steels himself to do it. If he doesn't go for help then Tony won't last long anyway, and he's is in such a bad way he probably won't even notice Gibbs has gone. He begins crawling across the floor but the further away from Tony he goes, the more his gut protests.
He gets as far as the elevator when he decides to follow his gut instead of his head and turns around and goes back.
At first he wonders if Tony is dead. He's so still. He places a finger against Tony’s neck and feels a faint, erratic pulse. Then he hears a rattling sound and watches as Tony struggles to take a breath; his lungs must be giving up. His chest falls and there's a long pause – too long – before it rises again.
A rasping sound fills the air as Tony tries to take another breath…and fails. His chest stays still. Unmoving.
"Tony?" Gibbs searches for a pulse again but finds none. "Tony!"
The puppy gazes at him curiously as he lies on the floor, shaking and gasping for air. He can hear himself sobbing and wishes the sound would shut the fuck up; it's so damn irritating. His chest hurts as the sobs emerge from what feels like the bottom of his soul.
The puppy gets up and half jumps, half falls off the bed on his little legs and comes towards him. He nudges his head against Gibbs's and gently licks the tears off his face. He gives an interrogatory little whine when Gibbs doesn't respond, and Gibbs wishes he could talk to the puppy, pick him up and tell him it's okay, but he can't do anything but lie there, shaking, the sweat pouring off him.
Eventually the puppy settles down beside his belly and nestles against him. It helps. He appreciates the warmth and the company and eventually the shaking subsides, leaving him as weak and wrung out as he always is after one of these attacks.
He manages to get up and crawl into the bed and a little while later the puppy follows, lying down on the pillow beside him where he proceeds to wash Gibbs's face with his little puppy tongue.
It's been a bad one, and Gibbs sleeps for the rest of the day. When he wakes up he wraps his arms around the puppy, holds him close, and kisses his soft black and brown head.
"Thanks," he mutters, and the puppy snuggles against him happily.
When the puppy is about three months old, Gibbs takes him outside for the first time. There’s still some snow underfoot, but it isn’t too deep. At first the little creature shivers when confronted by the outside world, but he soon throws himself into the snow, jumping around like a crazy thing. Within minutes he has dug several big holes in the snow in Gibbs's yard, pausing only to look up at Gibbs with a very pleased expression in his eyes.
"Digger then," Gibbs decides. It's a good name for a dog.
In the summer he builds Digger a kennel, which Digger takes one look at and then turns his back on. The dog runs indoors, jumps on the bed, and lies down there instead. Gibbs doesn't blame him. He likes having the pup in the bed beside him anyway.
Digger grows into a mid-sized dog, stocky and full of energy. He's stubborn as all hell, but that's a trait Gibbs can appreciate. Hell, it's probably what kept Digger alive in the first place when all his littermates died.
He enjoys training the dog, and Digger soon learns who is boss, just like every other living thing that Gibbs has trained.
Digger comes with him when he goes out walking, fishing, hunting or swimming. It's a good life for a dog, and Digger thrives.
When Gibbs first sees Emmylou again after the winter she's with one of the new season's hunters, an older guy who looks at her like she's every good thing he's ever known all rolled into one. Gibbs is glad for her; she deserves it.
She wraps him up in her usual warm hug and then pulls back and looks at him.
"You still waiting, Jethro?"
"Looks like it, Em," he replies, with a wry shrug.
"Well, I hope it turns up soon, whatever it is you're waiting for."
He turns away at that so she won't see what's in his eyes.
He spends the summer building an extension to the storeroom to use as a workroom. There isn't as much space in the living room these days, with the table and chairs and couch, and he has plans to make something more challenging this winter.
Last winter he made a closet for the bedroom and enjoyed putting more decorative features on it, like the acorns and oak leaves he carved into the bed, and this winter he wants to build a really fancy dresser with several intricate details that will test his skills to the limit. He's bought several books on the subject and is relishing the thought of it.
He makes a start on it when the first snow falls. It's early this year, and the big snow won't be far behind. The road up the mountain isn't yet impassable but it won't be long before he's cut off for the winter.
His new workroom is cosy. He's built a wooden bed for Digger to sleep in, with a blanket thrown inside, and placed it in front of the little electric heater he's brought out here for warmth. Digger seems happy to be wherever he is, and happily noses through the sawdust and wood shavings for off-cuts to play with when he isn't dozing in his bed.
Gibbs lays out his plans for the dresser, humming softly to himself as he works.
He gets out the lumber, selects the piece he wants to work on, and fastens it in place.
A few hours later, he's smoothing his sander along a stretch of wood when a bead of sweat falls on it, and then another, and he notices that his hands are shaking. He puts the sander down and moves away from the wood, trying to figure out why the hell this is happening.
Maybe he let his mind wander back to the past, or maybe it's the sound of the high winds picking up speed outside, or maybe nothing has set it off this time.
He crouches down with his back against the wall as the shaking consumes him, and is only dimly aware of Digger coming over to sit next to him when the flashback hits.
He's kneeling beside Tony's body, looking down on his burnt hand and smoke-blackened skin.
"No way. There's no fucking way I'm letting you go this easy, DiNozzo," he growls.
He puts his hands on Tony's chest and begins doing compressions. Then he pauses, pulls Tony's head back, holds his nose shut, and presses his mouth against Tony's lips. He breathes into Tony's mouth, willing his body to accept the air and for his damaged lungs to start breathing again.
His world closes in to that tiny point in time. He's pressing on Tony's chest, then breathing into his mouth, pressing on his chest, breathing into his mouth…
And that mouth suddenly moves under his, coughing, and he draws back, wiping the sweat out of his eyes. Tony's breath is coming in those ragged, rasping gasps again, and he turns his head and looks at Gibbs.
"You…still…here? Thought…you'd gone…Boss."
"No, Tony. I'm still here. I won't leave you again," he promises, sitting down beside Tony and cradling his head in his lap.
He is so damn glad he listened to his gut instead of his head. If he'd left then Tony would have slipped away, and they'd have only found his corpse when he finally led the emergency services back here.
He strokes Tony's hair gently, trying to soothe him, willing him to stay alive. If he can just stay alive until help gets here, then Gibbs is sure everything will be okay.
He knows McGee and Ziva are safe, but he wonders about Abby and Ducky. He hopes they weren't here. He hopes that it was only him and Tony who were caught in the blast. But he can't think about them right now. He can’t help them. He can only think about Tony, lying here, the air rattling in his lungs like every single breath is his last.
"You'd better damn well keep breathing, DiNozzo," he orders. "You are not gonna die on me."
"Wouldn't…dare…boss…" Tony jokes feebly.
They're silent for a long time. Then Gibbs moves his leg to relieve the cramp that's built up, and Tony gives a groan of pain at the movement. Gibbs remembers the agonised screaming he heard when he was in the elevator, and he suspects that came from Tony too.
"It's okay…ssh…just moved my leg…"
He tries to soothe Tony with his fingers, stroking his hair again, settling him back down, and he sees Tony staring up at him through the gloom. There's something strange about the expression in Tony's eyes, and it takes him awhile to realise what it is. Then it hits him: Tony isn't hiding anymore. There's no clown's mask in place. No laughing, stupid, idiot Tony, always angling for a head-slap and hiding his true feelings behind that deft smoke and mirrors act he's so good at. The pain has torn Tony's mask away and left him defenceless.
"Think I'm…dying, Boss," Tony whispers.
"No you're damn well not," Gibbs says fiercely.
"Am. So…should say...love you, Boss."
"Love ya too, Tony." It's too quick, too glib, and seems somehow impersonal, like he's speaking of the love of friendship and a long, close working relationship and nothing more.
Tony reaches up his good hand, grabs hold of Gibbs's shirt, and pulls him down.
"No," he says firmly, and his eyes are dark with something deeper than pain. "Mean it," he says. "I love you. Always have."
"Yeah, I know, Tony. I know."
And he does. He remembers all the little looks Tony's given him over the years, the devoted loyalty, and the sense of closeness that neither of them ever wanted to be called on.
Tony's always understood him like nobody else, except Shannon. And neither of them ever said anything, all these years, because…well, now he's not sure why. Because of their gender, their careers, their pride, their sheer stupid masculine pig-headedness, their refusal to acknowledge what was going on between them, their lack of understanding of their own emotions and desires, or any one of a number of other reasons…or all of them combined.
"I mean it too," he replies, because he can't let Tony die without hearing this. “I love you, Tony.”
Tony's eyes seem to brighten momentarily. He looks relieved that it's finally been said, as if a great burden has been lifted from him.
Then he loosens his grip on Gibbs's shirt, and a second later he stops breathing again.