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Gibbs sighed as he walked down the basement steps, mentally kicking himself as he made his way over to his workbench and the new plans for his boat.

He hadn’t meant for the day to go quite like it had, flying by him before he could accomplish what he had set out that morning to do. Gibbs wasn’t the kind of man to waste time once he had made up his mind; it simply wasn’t in his nature to vascillate like that. He’d determined to himself upon awakening that he would sit down with Tony and have a serious conversation about what he and Ducky had discussed the previous night.

Somehow, the day had gotten away from him, and before he knew it, Ducky was at his front door to give Tony a quick check-up before dinner. He’d still had hope, though, that they could sit down and talk after everyone left. One look at Tony’s exhausted face had squelched that thought before it could get off the ground. He’d barely got the younger man upstairs and in bed before the he had succumbed to sleep. Now Gibbs was in his basement looking at the fresh lumber he’d picked up that day - when I could have been talking with Tony instead - and shaking his head at his uncharacteristic behavior.

You’re not putting it off because you’re scared, are you? - a little voice in his head asked him.

Gibbs frowned at that, eyes staring unfocused at his boat plans as he thought it through. He was a Marine through and through and stubborn as a mule, and he’d never surrendered to fear in all the long years since he’d left Stillwater for basic training. Even before that, he’d been a obstinate young cuss who didn’t know how to back away from a fight, even if it meant getting the snot beat out of him before his dad could bring his formidable Winchester rifle to bear. And that just pissed me off even more. Never did learn how to let the old man help me out, even if it was necessary.

No, he wasn’t afraid, or at least not afraid enough to change course. He couldn’t deny the thread of anxiety that spiked through him like a lance at the thought of opening up the parts of himself to Tony that had been closed since his girls died, but he could control it, tame it, bend it to his own formidable will as he had so many other challenges.

He had made a conscious effort to relax around Tony throughout the day, letting tiny glimpses of his former self shine through the widening cracks in the walls around his long-broken heart. He had caught the younger man looking at him, a perplexed and speculative expression on his face that told Gibbs that he had noticed something was going on, even if he didn’t know what yet.

He sighed and put the plans down, turning to a drawer half-hidden in the shadows the lackluster basement lighting couldn’t penetrate. With a somewhat hesitant motion, he opened it and pulled out an old photo album, moving it to his workbench and laying it open with gentle, almost reverent care.

The smiling face of his wife and daughter - hearts of his heart, the loves of his life - gazed adoringly up at him, forever frozen in a joyous moment that still brought that unconquerable ache to life in him, even after all the long years between then and now.

He thought back to that moment in the river, before Tony had saved him, and he had seen - or thought he’d seen - his girls. Turning back and willing himself to live had been one of the hardest decisions he’d ever made, but in the end he’d pulled in ragged, wet, coughing breaths and survived. Part of him still felt like he was stuck in that river, waiting for life or death to take him, torn between worlds.

It's time to let it go, Jethro. Stop punishing yourself for your perceived failure to save them and let yourself be happy again.

Ducky’s words from the previous night seemed to echo in the air around him, joining the voice of his daughter as she told spoke to him in a nimbus of light among the shadows, Shannon standing with her. Go back, Daddy. Go back. It’s okay. I love you, Daddy. Love you...

“I’m sorry, honey,” Gibbs whispered, his thumb running across the photo over Kelly’s cheek as a tear streaked down his own. “I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to understand what you really meant. You and Ducky are right; it’s time to let it go. I’ll never stop loving you, both of you, but locking you away in my heart has done none of us any good. It hurts no matter what I do, but there could be joy, too, if I just let it come.

“They deserve to know about you. I’ve been selfish. I hurt your grandfather deeply, and I know you’d never want that. You two were so close, but I couldn’t see past my own pain to the pain in him. We’re better now, but I can never get those lost years back.

“Shannon… if you were here, you’d headslap me all the way to Stillwater and back. You always knew how to handle me, how to help me process my own thoughts without overwhelming me. Without you, I’ve been lost. I know you’d have hated every one of my ex-wives, not because they are bad people but because I was trying to replace you, and you’re irreplaceable. If I’d married somebody for who they were and not who I wanted them to be, it’d be different, but I didn’t. I know you just want me to be happy, but instead I wasted years of both my life and theirs. I’m sorry, love. I get it now.

“I love you both so much…” Gibbs’ voice broke, and he didn’t even bother to stem the tears as his hand rested over the photograph, fingers splayed wide as his thumb continued to rub back and forth, back and forth. There was no buffer of bourbon between him and the memories, no throwing of tools, curses, punching walls, or breaking boards. There was just Gibbs and a photo album full of memories he’d never allowed himself to recall unfiltered and sober, always unable to bear the pain.

It hurt - oh, how it hurt! - but it was a cleansing sort of pain, like debriding a terrible burn. He wept openly, memories of time with his girls flashing through his mind that normally only walked the phantom landscape of his dreams, only becoming nightmares upon awakening and finding them gone again.

He wept, and the bitter dredging of his soul produced a strange sweetness hitherto unknown, the acidic edges of those memories losing their burning sting to be replaced with something far less caustic. Gibbs’ fingers ceased their stroking motions to turn the page, revealing other memories captured in photographic posterity. As they played out in his mind, they, too, transformed, melting like winter into spring.

Soon he was smiling down at the photos, letting the memories wash over him, welcoming the pain that passed through him and left peace in its wake. The ache was still there, but it was finally harnessed, like a bucking bronco that had finally spent itself and yielded to the saddle and bit.

The tears slowed, then stopped, leaving him spent but strangely light. He slowly closed the album and replaced it in the drawer, pulling a framed photo of Shannon and Kelly out before closing it. He made his way back up the stairs and over to the mantle above the empty fireplace. He stared at it for a moment before shifting books out of the way and setting the photo carefully in a position of honor on the center of the newly-cleared mantle.

He nodded once before making his way up even more stairs to his room. He stripped to his boxers and a tee and crawled into bed, falling quickly into a deep and dreamless sleep.


Gibbs was once again up before Tony, already showered, shaved, dressed, and freshly caffeinated before the younger man even began to stir. He’d spent a few moments after his shower staring at the fading bruises on his body with the help of the bathroom mirror, frowning at the healing cuts from Chip’s knife. They would most likely scar, joining their brethren scattered across his body and standing testament to the more intense moments of his long and varied career as both Marine and Special Agent.

Some of the scars were minor, others speaking of wounds that had been a hair’s breadth from death. They represented only a fraction of the close calls he’d experienced, each one a potent reminder of his often disregarded mortality. Most people would see it as either a nearly insane dedication to duty and justice or a reckless streak that had never been broken, but the truth was that Gibbs hadn’t really cared one way or the other whether he lived or died for a long time. Like so many other things in the past several days, his perspective on the value of his own life had shifted. He’d still willingly take a bullet for his team or an innocent, but he wasn’t so ambivalent to his own survival anymore.

After all, if I die now, who will keep Tony out of trouble?

Surprised at his own introspection, Gibbs had shaken his head and gotten dressed before making his way downstairs to the fresh pot of coffee that waited for him, its siren-song of promised caffeine leading him inerrantly to the kitchen where he partook of a hastily-filled mug before starting breakfast. It didn’t take Gibbs long to prepare a tray for himself and Tony, replete with both food and medication. He had heard Tony stirring above him, so he knew the younger man was finally awake.

Soon enough, he was knocking once on Tony’s door before letting himself in. He smiled at the younger man as he set the tray on the nightstand.

“G’morning, Tony. How you feeling?”

Tony shrugged, then winced as his abused ribs and healing wounds pulled at the motion. Gibbs handed over the younger man’s morning meds and a glass of water with a watchful eye, not picking up his own plate and moving to sit on the other side of the bed until he’d made sure Tony swallowed them. Tony had just rolled his eyes and downed them, earning himself the gentlest of headslaps that made both men smirk at each other.

They chatted as they ate, staying away from heavier subjects and shifting from topic to topic with ease. No sooner was Tony done than Gibbs gathered up the dishes and tray and made his way downstairs with a be right back, Tony . Gibbs deposited the dishes in the sink to wash later and went down to the basement to pull the photo album out of the drawer where he had left it.

He stood there for a few quiet moments, staring at the cover as the memories of last night rolled over him again. The old, familiar ache hit him as he allowed himself to remember his girls, but once again it was joined with that ineffable sweetness that took away the sting. He brushed his hand across the dusty cover with a small smile, allowing the emotions to have their head without wresting away his control. He’d tamed this wild horse last night, and it felt good to know that he wouldn’t be thrown off in the morning light.

With one last glance around his basement, he strode up the both flights of stairs to Tony’s bedroom door. Not the guest room anymore; Tony’s room. It felt right to think of it as belonging to the younger man, just as the one chair at the dining room table was Tony’s chair . The thought warmed him and gave him renewed courage as he stepped through the doorway.

Before he could think too deeply about what he was about to do, the older man found himself standing before Tony as he reclined on the bed, propped up by pillows with a book in his hands. Gibbs held the photo album gripped loosely in one hand, clearly in Tony’s line of sight.

He watched as Tony’s eyes lighted on the album and a puzzled frown creased his brow. Taking a deep breath, Gibbs made the plunge.

“Tony, I think we need to talk.”

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