When Gibbs first meets Donna Noble, all he hears is her voice.
He's stuck in the line at the vending machine, waiting impatiently as someone at the head of the line mutters ineffective threats against the machinery. On a normal day, Gibbs would bypass the crowd to deliver his own brand of fix-it with a firm kick to the machine's side, but back in the bullpen they're sorting through the cold cases and if Gibbs has to listen to DiNozzo insult McGee one more time the next slap to the back of someone's head will be delivered with a closed fist.
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" sounds the new voice, rising above the fray. Without knowing why, Gibbs tenses. "Move over, all you're doing is making it worse."
Woman, not overly young, Gibbs categorizes as instinctively as breathing. There's a British accent covering her words, more working-class than Ducky's public school tones.
The person by the machine says something, to which the woman retorts, "You've been beating on that machine for five minutes. Don't you think you ought to buy it dinner first?"
The smile crosses Gibbs' lips before he can stop himself. There's a loud thump and crunch, and Gibbs catches a flash of red hair as the woman straightens up, candy bar triumphantly in hand.
He turns and walks away without his pretzels. He knows himself too well to risk it.
The next time he meets Donna Noble, it's at about ten at night in the bullpen. McGee left hours before and DiNozzo is somewhere, and Ziva...
Gibbs picks up his empty coffee cup, illogically trying to drain the non-existent drops from the bottom. In disgust, he chucks it into the trash can. It's so late now that the only coffee to be had is down in Legal, and they make the stuff too strong for even Gibbs to stomach.
" 'scuse me," comes a not-unfamiliar voice. Gibbs looks up into the face of a woman he'd never seen before.
A red-headed woman holding out a cup of coffee in his direction.
"You look like you can use this," she continues, putting the cup on the edge of his desk. She's not pretty, not really, but her features are striking, and there's something about her eyes that catches Gibbs unaware.
"Thanks," he says automatically, drawing the cup closer to him. It smells amazing. "What are you doing here so late?"
The woman gives him a half-smile. "Late, early, it's all the same when you look at it from the other side. I'm working with the boys in Intel and you look like you needed that more than me. I'm Donna Noble, by the way."
Gibbs holds his tongue, but she's right. The last case had been a bad one, an Army private brokering child porn on the side, and the case chewed the remnants of his team up and spat them out, and the stink of it all still clings to Gibbs' clothes.
He sips the coffee, and it's more amazing than any beverage has the right to be. "Thanks," he says again for lack of anything else. He stands up. "Jethro Gibbs," and he holds out his hand.
The woman takes it and they shake firmly. "I know," she says. "We hear all about you upstairs."
Gibbs holds in a wince. That's never good.
"I'll let you get back to it." Donna steps back. "You take care."
Gibbs picks up the coffee cup and watches her walk away.
The third time Gibbs sees Donna Noble, he's looking for her.
He barges into the room MI6 commandeered for the joint US-UK taskforce no one's supposed to know about, disrupting conversations left and right as he looks for the woman.
When he spots her by the far wall, a Naval Admiral is already barreling down in his direction. "What is the meaning of this?" he demands.
Gibbs doesn't have the time for the bullshit. He sidesteps the Admiral and continues on his way over to Donna. She frowns at him. "What's wrong?" she asks as soon as he's in earshot.
"Can you come with me for a few minutes?" he asks quietly, taking her by the elbow and guiding her out of the room. She looks at him curiously, but doesn't pull away. Instead, she fixes the apoplectic Admiral with a quelling glare.
"I'll be right back, try and hold things down while I'm gone?" she asks, and then they're out in the hall and heading toward the conference room. "All right, what?"
"I need your help," Gibbs says, trying to keep the urgency out of his voice because that sort of thing never helps with a woman like Donna. "We found a kid on a Naval base today. His mother's missing and his father's down in interrogation and he's not helping."
"What does this have to do with me?" Donna asks, sounding confused.
"The boy won't talk to any of the men on my team." Gibbs stops by the entrance to the conference room. "His mother's from Scotland and I'm hoping he might talk to you."
"Right, because Scotland is just round the corner from my street," Donna drawls, but there's a tension in the set of her mouth. She isn't fooled in the least. "What do you need me to do?"
"Talk to him. See if he knows where his mother might be. We don't have time to wait for social services."
Donna breathes deep. "What's his name?"
Gibbs opens the door and lets Donna into the room. DiNozzo's still perched on the far side of the table from Freddie, giving the boy his space. The child is heartbreakingly young, curled up in the chair around a stuffed dinosaur and watching every move DiNozzo makes.
Donna walks over to the boy. "Can I sit down?" she asks carefully.
The child transfers his gaze from DiNozzo to Donna. After a minute, he nods
"Thank you." She sinks into a chair just out of reach of the boy. "I'm Donna. Your name is Freddie?"
The boy nods again.
"That's a very nice dinosaur," Donna says. She leans forward slightly. "Did you know that they were bright blue and green, not just brown?"
DiNozzo edges up to Gibbs. "Boss?" he whisperers, a whole host of questions in the one word.
Gibbs shakes his head, just a little, and Tony backs off for the moment
Freddie gives all his attention to his dinosaur, a serious frown on his face. "Did they have feathers?" he asks, his voice high-pitched with youth. "Some people say they had feathers."
"Nah, sweetie, they didn't have feathers all over. But they had them along here," and Donna reaches out to run her finger along the top of the dinosaur's head. "Like a rooster, just standing all up."
Freddie bites his lip. "Were they big and strong?" He hugs the dinosaur tight against him.
Gibbs works very hard at not leaving the room to go pound on the sailor in interrogation. He knows the signs of child abuse, and this boy is a classic case.
"Yeah, luv, they were big and strong," Donna says, and Gibbs can hear the pain in her voice but she holds it together. "Freddie, can I ask you a question about your mum?"
Freddie stars at the floor for a while, then this beautiful seven-year-old boy puts his thumb in his mouth and curls in around himself, and Gibbs' heart sinks.
They're never going to find the mother alive.
After everything wraps up, after Freddie finally tells Donna where his mother was buried, after Gibbs gets a full confession out of the sailor without ever laying a finger on him, after McGee and Ducky call in to say that they located the body, and after Child Services picks up Freddie, Gibbs finds Donna standing out on the balcony overlooking the river.
Night's fallen and the sky cleared up, and Donna is watching the stars.
He doesn't say anything as he leans against the railing beside her. Light blink below them on a ship in the Naval Yard, far below.
"Do you ever think about why you do it?" Donna asks, her gaze still on the heavens.
In spite of everything in this horrific day, Gibbs sighs. "Because someone has to," he answers, not entirely truthfully.
Donna rubs her forehead. "I think about that little boy in there, and know he saw his mum killed, and I keep thinking that there has to be a better way to save people."
"Unless someone has a time machine to go back and save people before they're killed, that ain't going to happen." Gibbs is struck by the dichotomy between them on the balcony. Him, staring at the earth below; her, at the stars above.
Donna grips the railing tight, the expression on her face hidden in the shadows from the lights behind them. "Wouldn't happen," she says distantly. "There's some things that just can't be changed." Her hands push restlessly on the railing. Then she shakes her head, hair falling in her face. "I have to go make sure the boys upstairs don't accidentally declare war on Mars."
Gibbs touches her hand as she tries to pass him. "Thanks for your help," he says. He's surprised to find he means it. He hadn't really thought that far ahead.
Donna stops, looks at him, looks through him for a moment. "That's why I'm here, ain't it? Helping with international collaboration and the like?"
"Is it?" he asks, because at that very moment he isn't sure anymore.
Donna pulls her hand away, and he realizes that he's been touching her this whole time. "Maybe sometimes the best thing anyone can do is to help one person at a time." Something flashes in her eyes. "I think someone I knew told me that once. Maybe." She closes her mouth, opens it again, then shakes her head and walks away.
Gibbs looks at the sky and wonders, at her and at himself and why the hell he's still doing this job after so many years.
And he wonders who Donna was thinking about as she stared up at the stars.
The next time Gibbs sees Donna Noble, he brings her a cup of coffee. And no matter how tired she is from being the only person with any sense in a room of American and British Intel officers, she takes the time to smile at him.
It's a start.